Saturday, May 2, 2015

Technological Advances And The Social Contract

This panel discussion raised some very interesting questions about our technological future and its implications.  One of the advancements is in machine learning.  Machine learning is growing at an exponential rate.  This raises a question about the time frame in which machine intelligence will be superior to human intelligence in more applications than we can currently imagine.  Things that we used to believe were uniquely human, such as the ability to recognize and identify complex images, can now be done better by computers.  As computational resources increase in power, the range of activities for which we require human resources will diminish.  An expert in the field of machine learning explains why this is not science fiction.  Another expert looks at our job classification system which shows that 80% of the labor force is employed in relatively low skill jobs.  A lot of these jobs will be replaced by smart machines.  Unfortunately, some of fastest growing industries are not labor intensive.  A very small segment of our workforce today, and tomorrow, will be employed in occupations which require a STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).  Many of our politicians advocate programs to train more students in STEM.  A liberal arts education may be a better solution because it enables people to be more flexible and adaptive. 

The social question that arises from these discussions is that the age of labor scarcity is ending.  Our incomes have been based upon labor scarcity.  The first impact has been on low skill jobs, but many high skill jobs will also be replaced by smarter machines.  How will we manage a society in which we do not need a fully employed labor force working 40 hour per weeks?

The economist on the panel took a historical look at this problem and may have been a bit shaken by the rebuttals that he faced.  New technologies have always substituted for, or complemented, human labor. The majority of the workforce in much of our history was employed in agriculture.  Only 2% of the labor force in the US is employed in agriculture.  The farmers moved to the cities and took jobs in manufacturing.  Now they are moving into the services economy which employs the bulk of our labor force.  Unfortunately, many of the higher paying jobs in the services industry will also face a threat from increasingly smarter machines.  How would you prepare your five year old child for the future is the unanswered question.

My take away from this panel discussion is that the changes in technology are happening much faster than I had imagined, and that the time frame for order of magnitude transitions will be much shorter than many anticipate.  Most of us have been preoccupied with the very real problems that are apparent today.  That includes most of our  politicians.  We will need a superior government to deal with the issues that were raised in this discussion.  Its not encouraging to witness the backwards looking politicians that we observe running for high office in the US.  Many are following rather than leading the electorate.

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