[Humanist] 27.657 AI --> massive unemployment

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Dec 31 11:14:14 CET 2013

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 657.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    John Simpson <john.simpson at ualberta.ca>                   (50)
        Subject: Re:  27.656 AI --> massive unemployment?

  [2]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (83)
        Subject: technology and unemployment

        Date: Mon, 30 Dec 2013 10:13:49 -0500
        From: John Simpson <john.simpson at ualberta.ca>
        Subject: Re:  27.656 AI --> massive unemployment?
        In-Reply-To: <20131230091428.7FE8D6118 at digitalhumanities.org>

Some marginalia for the article "Computers Jump to the Head of the Class"

The project described in the article looks like nice variation of the Turing Test.  How odd that it isn’t mentioned in the article at all, especially since Queen Elizabeth provided a rare royal pardon to Turing only five days prior to publication.[1]  

The fear that machines will lead to massive unemployment goes back to the industrial revolution with inventions like the power loom, the Arkwright frame, and the cotton (en)gin(e).  Perhaps the most relevant historical figure for to consider who made similar prognostications in this regard is Norbert Wiener who tells us that:

“…the situation is that probably two to three years we will see the automatic factory well understood and its use beginning to accelerate production.  Five years from now will see in the automatic assembly line something of which we possess the complete know how, and of which we possess a vast backlog of parts.
Furthermore, social reforms do not get made in war.  At the end of such a war, we shall find ourselves with a tremendous backlog of parts and know-how, which is extremely tempting to anybody that wants to make a quickie fortune and get out from under, and leave the rest of the community to pick up the pieces.  That may very well happen.  If that does happen, heaven help us, because we will have an unemployment compared with which the great depression was a nice little joke.” [2]

(Wiener also provides two nice allusions for our relationship with technology at the end of the article by drawing on the fable of the monkey’s paw and the legends of genies.)

Of course what such technologies have often done historically is produce new kinds of labour and labour organization as much as some forms are made obsolete (Unfortunately much of this has been menial to the point of slavery, both metaphorically and literally) and so considering how labour will change is probably a more suitable question to consider than how it will be reduced.  The article considers this at the end, quoting Kenneth Brant, a research director at Gartner, as claiming that "This optimistic scenario I call Homo Ludens, or ‘Man, the Player,’ because maybe we will not be the smartest thing on the planet after all. Maybe our destiny is to create the smartest thing on the planet and use it to follow a course of self-actualization.”  The title of the scenario will ring bells for any gaming theorists and those interested in play since it is the same as the title of a seminal work on playing by Johan Huizinga.[3]  While what Gartner is describing seems reasonably related to Huzinga’s work Bernard Suits’ The Grasshopper, which playfully considers the meaning of life by imagining how we should respond to a utopian situation where there is, practically speaking, no work for us to do, seems a better fit for further consideration.[4]

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/24/world/europe/alan-turing-enigma-code-breaker-and-computer-pioneer-wins-royal-pardon.html

[2] Wiener, Norbert. “Men, Machines, and the World About.” In Medicine and Science, edited by Iago Galdston, 13–28. New York Academy of Medicine. Lectures to the Laity: 16. New York, International Universities Press, 1954., 1954.  Note that finding this in the original publication is likely to prove rather difficult.  Fortunately it has been reprinted in The New Media Reader by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort: http://www.newmediareader.com/

[3] http://books.google.ca/booksid=oZgA8UDf3_4C&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

[4]  http://books.google.ca/books/about/The_Grasshopper.html?id=EMcDI4m0BpsC  Note that this Google preview is of a second edition (of sorts) put out by Broadview press.  While this version offers new material it unfortunately does not include the beautiful illustrations included when first published that added much to the character of the work.

John Simpson
Postdoctoral Fellow, INKE and Text Mining & Visualization for Literary History
University of Alberta

On Dec 30, 2013, at 4:14 AM, Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:

>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 656.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>        Date: Sun, 29 Dec 2013 14:59:50 -0600
>        From: "Robert A. Amsler" <amsler at cs.utexas.edu>
>        Subject: AI Could Create Massive Unemployment within 20 years
>        In-Reply-To: <20131229102915.5F368604C at digitalhumanities.org>
> Computers Jump to the Head of the Class
> Michael Fitzpatrick
> The New York Times, 29 December 2013
> TOKYO — If a computer could ace the entrance exam for a top university, what would that mean for mere mortals with average intellects? This is a question that has bothered Noriko Arai, a mathematics professor, ever since the notion entered her head three years ago.
> “I wanted to get a clear image of how many of our intellectual activities will be replaced by machines. That is why I started the project: Can a Computer Enter Tokyo University? — the Todai Robot Project,” she said in a recent interview.
> Tokyo University, known as Todai, is Japan’s best. Its exacting entry test requires years of cramming to pass and can defeat even the most erudite. Most current computers, trained in data crunching, fail to understand its natural language tasks altogether.
> Ms. Arai has set researchers at Japan’s National Institute of Informatics, where she works, the task of developing a machine that can jump the lofty Todai bar by 2021.
> [For the remainder see http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/30/world/asia/computers-jump-to-the-head-of-the-class.html?emc=edit_tnt_20131229&tntemail0=y]

        Date: Tue, 31 Dec 2013 09:57:22 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: technology and unemployment
        In-Reply-To: <20131230091428.7FE8D6118 at digitalhumanities.org>

Although now quite old Robert Heilbroner's "The Impact of Technology: 
The Historic Debate", in John T. Dunlop, ed., Automation and 
Technological Change (Prentice Hall, 1962), gives an excellent overview 
of the historical arguments from Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations to 
the early 1960s. Much of what is said in this long debate will be 
familiar to those who have read the arguments and counter-arguments with 
respect to the computer, esp during the early years. But Heilbroner goes 
further than many.

So, I think it is worth quoting from the end of his chapter for his 
bringing into focus the question of the end to which the much advanced 
benefits are directed:

> Once again, however, there is here a larger problem than that of
> economics alone. For in its widest implications the problem of
> secular "adjustment" brings us again to a consideration of how the
> human personality and the social organism become acclimated to the
> new environment which technology creates for them.
> And here we return again to the "positive" aspect of technology to
> which we have previously referred. Throughout the historic debate we
> have noted a continuing counterpoint of argument between those who,
> on the one hand, have emphasized the cramping, the stultifying, the
> "dehumanizing" aspect of technology, and those who have replied by
> stressing its basic gifts of wealth and leisure. If, as we have
> noted, there are few celebrants of the industrial process as a tonic
> for the human spirit, there have been many who have sought to justify
> its relentless advance in terms of the gradual limitation, even the
> elimination, of  work itself. To them the machine offers the ultimate
> reward of an escape from the historic indenture of man to scarcity
> and toil.
> But the question is: escape into what?... [A]lready one can ask if
> the disorders of contemporary society are not traceable in some
> degree to a superfluity of some kinds of wealth and to an inadequate
> opportunity to perform challenging work....

This is the largely overlooked question of "leisure", which all too 
often turns out to be unemployment. Few other than Heilbroner, during 
this period at least, ask what actually leisure amounts to. One finds 
much handwaving about opportunities to become educated and enjoy the 
finer high-brow things of life. But serious consideration of 
consequences is rare. Norbert Wiener, in The Human Use of Human Beings: 
Cybernetics and Society (1950), for example, was one of the few, though 
when reading him it is good to have read Peter Galison's "The Ontology 
of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision", Critical 
Inquiry 21.1 (1994): 228-66.

Heilbroner concludes:

> Even the "simplest" of questions-the over-all impact of technology on
> employment and output-is still only uncertainly understood. Far less
> do we comprehend the effect of technology on "man," and still less
> again its enormous pressure on the moulding of society.
> Insofar as this ignorance reflects the disparity between our crude
> instruments of social inquiry and the delicate refinement of the
> problems, our lack of understanding can only be ruefully accepted.
> Unfortunately, however, our ignorance is not merely the result of the
> obduracy of the issues. It is symptomatic as well of a failure to
> mount a bold intellectual assault upon the problem itself. Adrift on
> a furious current of technology, we allow ourselves to be swept
> along, trusting to the blind forces at work to bring us safely to
> some unknown but unquestioned destination. It need hardly be pointed
> out that this belief in the benign social impact of technology may
> turn out to have been the most tragic of all contemporary faiths.
> Hence, while there is still time left, we must peer courageously
> ahead, take audacious triangulations on our course, seek to combine
> empiricism and speculation on the grand scale. Perhaps now, as the
> perils and promise of technology seize our imaginations and crowd our
> awareness as never before, it may be possible to launch such an
> effort to understand and guide our fate. For in this age of technical
> virtuosity Man will surely never ride Things unless he is prepared to
> ask questions which today do not often seem to occur to him.

His final metaphor looks back to the question he asks at the beginning:

> At least in the Western world, where the typical landscape is
> industrial, where human life is sustained by the ceaseless operation
> of an enormous technical apparatus, where mechanical contrivances
> have penetrated into the smallest interstices of private life, it is
> not mere rhetoric to ask if Things are not already in the saddle,
> riding Man.


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Research Group in Digital
Humanities, University of Western Sydney

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