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Can We Think Our Way Past Robots?

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Can We Think Our Way Past Robots?

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Never mind the wall that President Trump said Mexico must pay for but then Congress must pay for; either that or much of the working class loses its health coverage. Oh, he’s dropped that? Well, it made for a lively 24 hours.

Bubbling beneath today’s comic-book politics are threats to American workers that have nothing to do with people or things coming over the border. Robots and artificial intelligence are nipping at the heels of not only blue-collar workers but also white-collar professionals who assumed that a degree would keep them several steps ahead of the machines.

Trump’s treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, recently opined that this peril for employment is, “like, so far away” that it’s not even on his “radar screen.” Guess he hasn’t read about MillerCoors’ plan to offer a beer service called Miller Lite On-Demand.

It works like this: A beer drinker watching the game at home comes to the startling realization that he’s out of Miller Lite. Without having to take his rear end off the couch, he uses a voice-activated command (or pushes a programmed button on the phone) to order more beer. A truck arrives with reinforcements within an hour.

There’s no going to a store that has to employ salespeople. Technology for self-driving trucks is well on its way, so truck drivers will soon not be needed.

Here’s the glitch. With jobs like these gone, how will the beer drinker make the money needed to buy the beverage? Such questions are gathering dust in an administration intent on distracting ordinary folk with entertainment as it marshals its deep thinking for such matters as how to slash taxes for real estate empires.

Actually, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently published a study on the advances in automation and artificial intelligence and posed some not insignificant questions related to them. For instance:

Who gets to choose the technological future? How does this change us as a society? And what will it mean to be human?

The president would no doubt have read all 184 pages had he not been busy that day signing a law to cut funding for Planned Parenthood and flying off to Palm Beach. But as his supporters say, give him a chance. Give him a chance.

Artificial intelligence goes way beyond the elementary programming of robots to tighten screws. Simplistically put, it teaches machines to think, to learn the way toddlers do. With traditional robots, at least you needed humans to do the programming. Technology is now being developed that would let the machines program themselves.

Artificial intelligence can already do some things that lawyers or their human assistants had to do. For example, it uses “natural language processing” to go through documents and find passages that may be relevant to a case.

This technology has let BlackRock, the giant investment company, do away with some of its human stock pickers. Marry big data to algorithms and computer models and you have fund managers who never take vacations, loyal machines who won’t skip off to a competitor.

Six years ago, IBM’s Watson rampaged through “Jeopardy!” with the smart responses. Watson now helps doctors diagnose cancer and H&R Block do tax returns.

Well-planned, this technology could deliver a glorious future of leisure and creativity to the masses. Or it could relegate them to misery under the thumbs of a few masterminds pulling the levers. Sadly, our current leadership seems determined to avoid thought unrelated to today’s appetites.

As Groucho Marx put it: “Why should I care about posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me?”

IMAGE: Visitors watch different sized industrial robots by KUKA at the Hanover Messe in Hanover, Germany, April 8, 2013.  REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch/File Photo

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

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Froma Harrop

Froma Harrop’s nationally syndicated column appears in over 150 newspapers. Media Matters ranks her column 20th nationally in total readership and 14th in large newspaper concentration. Harrop has been a guest on PBS, MSNBC, Fox News and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and is a frequent voice on NPR and talk radio stations in every time zone as well.

A Loeb Award finalist for economic commentary in 2004 and again in 2011, Harrop was also a Scripps Howard Award finalist for commentary in 2010. She has been honored by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and the New England Associated Press News Executives Association has given her five awards.

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33 Comments

  1. dbtheonly April 26, 2017

    Bully!

    This is exactly the problem I’d like to see addressed.

    Thomas Friedman has written several books on globalization and has managed to avoid asking the hard questions.

    “Well-planned, this technology could deliver a glorious future of leisure and creativity to the masses.”

    How? How planned?

    You’re talking of losing just about every job. You can teach by computer and video so students can all learn from the top teachers. Great! But what about all the other teachers who are now unemployed? How do young teachers gain experience?

    Computers do medical diagnosis. What becomes of the Doctors? Apparently the only people you’d need are those who hook you up to the machine.

    There are 7 billion monkey boys. How many of them will have meaningful jobs in this technical wonderland?

    And has anyone seen the Matrix Movies?

    Reply
    1. Just A Citizen April 26, 2017

      Better question is WHY does it need to be planned at all. I understand this is a “left leaning” site so that probably explains it. The false belief that everything can be planned. Including complex economic and societal interactions.

      I to have trepidations over the coming robot and AI wave. But so did those who were victims of industrialization, creation of automobiles, trains, planes, refrigerators, washing machines, etc. etc..

      It is very possible that if humans do not have to work to feed, cloth and shelter themselves that they will spend their time thinking and creating new wonderous things.

      Reply
      1. dbtheonly April 26, 2017

        You’re a Star Trek fan?

        Reply
        1. Just A Citizen April 27, 2017

          db

          Pretty much all Sci Fiction.

          Reply
      2. JPHALL April 26, 2017

        Conservatives are always so derogatory. So please tell me how do these people, who no longer have jobs, pay for these machine produced goods? What happens to the economy? What needs to be done so that we do not have a future where the majority of Americans are like those now complaining in the Rust Belt about jobs that are never coming back?

        Reply
        1. Just A Citizen April 27, 2017

          JPHall

          If machines are making everything then there is NO COST for the goods.

          The end game is actually easier to see than what happens between now and then. When only some people have machines and those who lose jobs have few new options.

          History shows us that it is irrational to argue that people who lose work to mechanization will not find other means of support. I envision even greater growth in self employed businesses. Who knows what kind of jobs might arise, like robot mechanics.

          Reply
          1. JPHALL April 27, 2017

            Like too many you like to skip over the pain of change. Star Trek is fiction. Even in the story there was much pain in reaching the Federation. And it did not happen just by wishing. There were many debates, discussions, wars and planning.

            Reply
          2. Just A Citizen April 27, 2017

            JP

            First of all I am not using Star Trek as a basis for anything. For one, I don’t see computers actually making things from thin air….ever. Well except fertilizer of course.

            And you must have overlooked the part where I said the transition is the issue. It could be like all other revolutionary changes or it could devolve into chaos and abject despair. For those without machines.

            Reply
          3. JPHALL April 27, 2017

            Which is the point. Without effort – planning – things usually end in chaos with people being hurt. And that goes for people with or without machines.

            Reply
          4. 788eddie April 27, 2017

            The cost of the machines; the cost of the energy to run them; the cost of the profit that the people who run the business; the cost that the stockholders will take out in dividends.

            I think there will be plenty of “cost” for the goods produced, “Just A”.

            Reply
          5. Just A Citizen April 27, 2017

            788

            If everything is made by machines then who has to pay to have things made? Machines do not require money to work. Like I said, if that is the end game then the need for money pretty much goes away.

            Reply
          6. 788eddie April 27, 2017

            I’ve posted some of the continuing costs above, JAC. Please re-read the post above yours.

            Reply
          7. Just A Citizen April 27, 2017

            788

            Why would those costs exist if machines were doing everything??

            I mean everything.

            Reply
          8. 788eddie April 27, 2017

            What?!?!

            Reply
          9. Just A Citizen April 27, 2017

            Why would there be any costs? I saw your list. I disagree. Explain why they would exist when people do not have to do anything but sit around.

            Reply
        2. Just A Citizen April 27, 2017

          JP

          What was derogatory about what I said?. This is a left leaning site, I am reminded by my troll stalkers often that I don’t belong here. And the fallacy of “central planning” is absolutely part of the left’s belief system.

          Furthermore, I am not a conservative so you can’t pin it on them if you think I was derogatory.

          Reply
          1. JPHALL April 27, 2017

            As usual you of the right think everything in a communist plot. Central planning is not only used by the left, but, for you information, big companies use central planning. Ask Ford or Exxon/Mobil if that is not true. As to your conservatism or lack thereof, if it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck….

            Reply
          2. Just A Citizen April 27, 2017

            JPHALL

            Nobody on the modern Right believes that Central Planning an economy works, let alone is desirable. That is a left wing thing. And it applies to all versions of the left, not just the communists. Although they represent the most obvious failures at trying.

            The discussion was about Society level as in macro economic planning. Not business planning. But even there, honest people will tell you that “plans” don’t last long. And that is for just one business.

            So your entire rebuttal utilizes another fallaceous strategy. False equivalency.

            Reply
          3. JPHALL April 27, 2017

            It is alway so funny when you right wingers can not adequately reply to a statement. You are so busy pushing ideology you cannot make a coherent reply. Try again.

            Reply
          4. Just A Citizen April 27, 2017

            What did I not reply to?

            Reply
        3. dbtheonly April 27, 2017

          That’s exactly it, JP.

          We’ve got machines constructing everything. Even machines to do the constructing. We’ve got the “superstars” in every field making tons of money, and everyone else in that field left behind. We’ve got billions of people with no meaningful work. I’m seeing the front edge of the wave, right now.

          The cost of material things will drop. The cost of “personal” things, things a machine can’t do, assuming there is such a critter, will increase. The economic ramifications are staggering.

          You see where they’ve built a “self directed drone”? My friend comes over, shows me the story, and says, “By Jove B, They’ve built Terminator.” “It’s only a fetal Terminator”, I weakly reply.

          Reply
      3. Claragsmiley April 27, 2017

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        Reply
      4. dbtheonly April 27, 2017

        A few preliminary questions,

        I see you espousing a libertarian/conservative policy. Yet you deny you’re a conservative?

        How do you reconcile the Roddenberry/Blish view of the Federation and libertarian philosophy? I’ll agree that economics is probably the weakest area of the Trek Universe.

        Why planned? Because planning gives organization, system, and structure to any undertaking. One would not build a road at random. One would do soil tests before constructing a building. Farming is planned by crop rotation, if nought else.

        Reply
        1. Just A Citizen April 27, 2017

          db

          Don’t confuse project planning with Society planning. My comment was aimed at another comment that we need to plan for this disruptive change. That is planning at a society and macro economic scale. It is impossible to do. Every attempt to do it has resulted in all kinds of unexpected things.

          In reality, you cannot plan out such changes. You have to wait and see what happens and then react. And when reacting keep in mind “do no harm”. We far to often try to fix things that are not real problems or are only temporary. The fix then turns out worse than the problem would have if left untouched.

          I am certainly not a “conservative” per their own definition nor that of people on the left who have their own definition. I am far more “objectivist” than “libertarian”, but way more “libertarian” than “conservative”. I find it interesting how so many “libertarian” types call themselves “conservative”. Like Ron and Rand Paul.

          I do not see Star Trek world as Libertarian so I don’t know why I would need to reconcile the two.

          Reply
          1. dbtheonly April 27, 2017

            Bandying labels is an exercise in futility. Define yourself as you choose.

            Reacting to events is mandatory, but the military has plans for wars with just about everyone. Planning ahead is merely prudent. How will life change with driverless cars? They’re here already. What do you do when all colleges are taught only remotely? What do you do when all banking is on-line? Ans. You wait as the two remaining tellers are backed up to the door. When grocery stores offer only self-checkout?

            No, the world is fast changing.

            The Trek-verse is decidedly not libertarian or objectivist. It is a socialist communalism. Always made Quark on DS-9 so out of place.

            Reply
          2. Just A Citizen April 27, 2017

            db

            Labels are how humans categorize and communicate about things in the world. Probably why the left is so intent on changing definitions and obfuscating the meaning of various categories. Liberal was hijacked by those spouting socialist dogma.

            I agree, Trek-verse seemed very socialist to me. Always got a kick out of Spock’s conflict of living by “logic” while espousing an “altruistic” ethic. If one applies logic they would conclude that altruism is a false doctrine.

            Reply
          3. dbtheonly April 27, 2017

            If anything it’s the Republicans with their “fair and balanced” network, which isn’t. It’s any number of Bush era bills which undid the very thing they claimed, the ‘Clean Ari Initiative”, for example allowed greater air pollution.

            “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” It’s actually Libertarianism or objectivism which are illogical as the presume the individual has no responsibility to the community. Aaron postulated, and I agreed, that Ayn Rand’s philosophy is the most directly anti-Christ philosophy around.

            Reply
          4. Just A Citizen April 27, 2017

            db

            Rand believed in objective reasoning. She did not believe in God or Christ because that requires belief in magic. She never considered a concept of God other than that provided by theologians.

            Altruism, as first conceived, actually calls for the sacrifice of the individual for the good of the many. Now think what evil can be perpetrated under such an ethic. Logic says that if the individual has not meaning, is not as important as the whole, then our individual rights are invalid. Only the community could have sacred rights. Our free will would need to be destroyed. Because only the collective will of the group matters.

            Neither Libertarians nor Objectivists reject group or community interactions and even empathy. The love charity. But you are correct in that there is no inherent responsibility. That can only come by individual agreements or arrangements.

            I am not obligated to care for strangers and they have no hold on me that forces me to be responsible for them. If I choose to do so then that is my prerogative. This is how peaceful cooperation is created among people within a community. Once you start compelling people to do things your “civilization” breaks down.

            Reply
          5. dbtheonly April 27, 2017

            You might find an argument from Socrates on the responsibilities of an individual to his community.

            You can find the ramifications of raw individualism in Thomas Hobbs.

            Aaron points out that Ayn Rand’s teachings are the exact anthisis of Jesus’s. While Jesus died for his beliefs, Rand lived on Social Security in her declining years.

            Reply
          6. Just A Citizen April 27, 2017

            db

            Don’t denigrate yourself by bringing up Rand’s use of Social Security. It has nothing to do with the argument. And long before she used it, she provided a pretty good argument supporting use of it. That being that only those who had adamantly opposed it were entitled to use it. Because they were forced to pay for it against their will. So she viewed it like the victim getting some of his money back from the thief.

            I am guessing that what you call “raw” individualism is not what is supported by Libertarians or Objectivists. Both recognize the tribal or community nature of humans. They just don’t create false claims of the group upon individuals. Obligations are created via voluntary association and contract. Not by mere birth into a community.

            Not sure how Rand is the antithesis of Jesus’ teachings. She supported charity and she rejected the dominion of Govt. over the individual sole. She did not support the notion of rich people exploiting poor people. Despite what you might have been told. You will have to give me more on this before I can comment our understand your point.

            Reply
      5. Aaron_of_Portsmouth April 27, 2017

        You talk about planning in your post as a false belief, and that since this is a “left-leaning” site, that would explain the article. Well, had you been awake all the past 20 or more years, planning by the GOP has been their motto down to the final penny. So obsessed is the Western World in planning, going back to the Industrial Age and prior to that that any intelligent person would readily conclude that “planning” isn’t a Democratic nor Republican phenomenon.

        I’m surprised that I have to explain the obvious to you. In the Northern Hemisphere, with its colder and harsher weather conditions, the 2nd wave of humans out of Africa into the higher latitudes had to be very mindful of when to plant, how to properly store food and other items for the more severe seasons, and organize their societies in such a way as to insure survival. This wasn’t a “Left-Wing” idea, buddy.

        If you would trouble yourself to stop and think, reflect, and develop your “Inner Eye”, you would at last see the trend towards automation.

        One doesn’t have to be familiar with Isaac Asimov’s “Robot Novels”, written around 1939, to understand that robotics would be the thing of today and the future—and when he wrote that, it wasn’t a political statement, but his keen observation that science and society “progress” in tandem. This is a reality that has escaped the limited minds of “Conservative” thinkers ever since the days of such “conservatives” as Nimrod, Caiphas, Pharoah, and other status quo figures throughout humankind’s history.

        And yet, here you are today, still following this ancient outdated, antiquated mode of looking at human society. If you haven’t prepared your children to be “progressive” in their thinking and “planning”, then I’m afraid they’ll just wind up in “tar pits” of irrelevance.

        Happy Planning, fellow citizen!!

        Reply
        1. Just A Citizen April 27, 2017

          Aaron

          I did not say it was a Democrat vs. Republican thing. I said Govt. Central PLanning is a left wing or lefty thing.

          There are many left leaning people in the Republican party. Have been ever since Teddy Roosevelt.

          Your conflating normal life and business planning with the hubris of those that think they can plan and control and economy of 300 million people. It can be controlled all right. All you have to do is destroy freedom and liberty. Russia and China were very successful at “planning”. They just never were able to get any positive results.

          And please don’t conflate Progress with Progressives. There is little about the latter that involves the former. They are still tying to implement their socialist goals from the late 1800’s. Most Conservatives I know are fully engaged in moving forward, embracing actual progress.

          Reply
  2. Aaron_of_Portsmouth April 27, 2017

    Just having helped “Just a Citizen”, the one who feels compelled to check up on the “lefties” by visiting this sight so he can get agitated, I pointed out that an automated future is not a “Left-Wing” idea, but has been around since the dawn of the Industrial Age in the 19th Century.

    The fact that so many in America have cemented their feet and minds to the here and now, never anticipating change, and abhorring change when it occurs, this same segment of Americans are dismayed, angered, and unsure of what this all portends for their futures.

    Instead of foresight and embracing change, the “Conservative” mind can only look backwards in time—and when they make the (God forbid!) “radical” leap to look at the present, and even more radically, suddenly take stock of the changes that have for generations been occurring, they are troubled to the point of electing a narrow-minded materialist, dripping with avarice and bluster, as President, hoping Trump will miraculously halt the Inevitable.

    Trump, like his followers, will just be grist for the mill of the Paradigm of Change—a pattern which is woven into the very fabric and foundation of the physical world and in humans’ souls and mental capacities.

    Trump and the GOP are waging a foolish and hopeless battle to resist change.

    But change must be properly channeled—Change, just for the pure sake of change, without forethought and changing our emotional, spiritual aspect, and how we interact with all members of human society—not just in America— but across the planet in a parallel manner, will result in either a totally mechanized world, devoid of emotion and aspiring to be better human beings capable of far more empathy and creative solutions than what is current;y proposed by “Conservative/Materialist” politicians, policy-makers, and other so-called leaders of thought devoid of insights about the spiritual prerequisites required to properly integrate technology with spiritual sensibilities.

    So far, this “integration” eludes the vast majority of humankind, particularly here in America, due to a dismissal of the importance of developing a better set of “inner eyes” to make the right choices moving forward.

    Reply

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