Is AI/Robotics the Next Humanitarian Crisis?

I am not afraid of technology.  To make technology is to be human. Technology and humanity are inseparable. My concern rests on the agility of our leading global institutions to engage technology in a manner that does not understand other forms of human organization. Technology is human, but it is not innately social. 

Nearly everyday an apocalyptic statement graces the headlines, announcing the threat of robotics to the global economy and patterns of day-to-day living. Supposedly by 2025, one of every three people will lose his job and become replaced by a robot. Five years later, in 2029, robots will have intelligence equal to humans. Artificial intelligence is the “biggest existential threat” to humanity.

These pronouncements do more to demonstrate a poor comprehension of the technologies and a complete disregard for economic history. Thousands of years of evidence highlight technological change is a healthy thing for labor markets. The counter argument is that emerging developments in robotics concerning automation, computer vision, data analysis, and machine learning are giving rise to a new kind of technology that is different from previous developments concerning hardware or information processing. 

The debate on the integration of computation and human society is as old as computation itself, and contemporary arguments remain rooted in the 20th-century invention of cybernetics, an experimental epistemology concerning the effective organization and communication of integrated social and environmental systems. Norbert Wiener’s theories on systems feed back and interactions with technology were situated within concerns of human ecology and governance. Weiner also projected the eventual creation of the machine a’ governor, robot government designed to solve any problems to emerge within the government-human economy. In consequence, humans would be free to spend time at leisure while the machines replicated themselves, taught themselves, and effectively solved all possible problems for humans. All hail the machine.

According to roboticist Illah Nourbakhsh, in his book Robot Ethics, the critical difference is that while the developments of the 20th century provided the ability to simultaneously engage and manage multiple streams of information, but the advancement of robotics provides the capability to now distribute multiple forms of action. More significantly, the ability for robots to network, sense, choose, and automate with other robots will eventually lead to strange unpredictable configurations of technology that will blur currently held conceptions of social identity and accountability. To render this probability in the context of advanced capitalism, established modes of socio-economic production are at risk of obsolesce. It will be necessary to invent new modes of value production in society or human beings will be useless.

Wiener’s visions were not unique but predicated John Maynard Keynes' Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. Economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a technologically advanced future relegating the necessity of human labor to a mere 15 hours a week. There was some plausibility to Keynes' vision, as more efficiency in labor does not replace the need for human labor, but rather elevates the value of human labor relative to the demand for production. Of course, if there is a change in demand, and production is not sufficiently responsive to that change, then human labor is devalued. In the case of robotics, it is imaginable that vast networks of robots producing goods in relation to the algorithmic demands of big data would be more responsive to market changes than humans. Already this is evidenced by the application of algorithmic trading in stock markets. Humans can’t compete with networked, data driven, robots on mere market efficiency. The need for human supplied labor is replaced. The externalities are severe. 

Lost human jobs equates to a reduced tax base, reduced social services, lower quality education, reduced social capital, deteriorating communities, crumbling infrastructure, and stunted generational access to social and personal mobility alongside increased depression and substance abuse. To let this possible future, arise anywhere in the world is unconscionable. Surely this can’t happen of course because humans are capable and responsive. New markets can be created. 

Keyne’s argued that the remedy to competition with technology relies on the ability for humans to acquire the sufficient skills to make use of the technology. Keyne’s highlighted this problem as a “temporary maladjustment:, which might require several years for a labor force to catch up to the technology”. But what if the pace of technological advancement is faster than the ability for humans to learn? To close the gap is an ineffective a pointless conquest. In some places – existing urban concentrations of wealth and opportunity like New York City, San Francisco, Tokyo, or Istanbul – this will be true and educated people who inherited rich social assets will make use of the technology. But no one else will ever have a chance to compete.

Clearly, there is a bigger concern that does not emerge in these conversations on robotic futures: Is a world in which day-to-day livelihoods remain under constant threat of technology a desirable world? As the systems of production, exchange, and valuation that drive the technology are the choices and actions of humans, why then could the long term future of the world be one outside of our own choosing? Obviously, systems magnify behaviors, and complex adaptive social systems are virulent landscapes to contain. The complementary mechanisms and conditions of the global economy, such as systems of governance and human security, have struggled to keep pace with socio-economic demand and it is clear that this trend will only get worse.

There have been tremendous strides in the global economy in the last 100 years. International institutions have been founded to advance regulatory measures for human interests. Less people have died of illness or war. More people in the world have accessed education and social mobility than any century in human history. I am confident in those strides and those institutions. My concern rests on the agility of those institutions to engage a technological threat. The problem of Keyne’s “temporary maladjustment” continues to repeat itself ad infinitum, and when the world places blind faith in the advancement of technology, the learning curve becomes painfully steep.

The international humanitarian and human rights regimes are not contemplating this future impact of robotics. Grass roots organizations and urban planning departments are busy replicating the status quo. In the meanwhile, cybernetics hasn’t died in the minds of military engineers and industrial capitalists remain quick to take advantage of grand visions of a perfectly automated society. We are sold conveniences but in exchange purchase longterm economic servitude.  There is a demand for another approach, other ways for thinking and acting are essential to guide the advancement of human living. Buried beneath the layers of ideology and intent, our globally distributed modes of production and exchange all contain a shared thread and this thread elicits a new possibility for design.