Artificial Intelligence: a Noble End for Humanity?

Debra Vogler’s first career was as a reliability engineer in the defense and semiconductor manufacturing equipment industries (20 years total). Her second (and current) career as a journalist covering semiconductor manufacturing technologies has also spanned nearly 20 years. She founded Instant Insight Inc. in 1998 as a vehicle for launching a different career path as a writer and executive producer. As such, she created and executive produced a pilot episode for a children’s science show (   www.curiousduck.com   ). She has B.S. and M.S. degrees in Physics from Marquette University.

Debra Vogler’s first career was as a reliability engineer in the defense and semiconductor manufacturing equipment industries (20 years total). Her second (and current) career as a journalist covering semiconductor manufacturing technologies has also spanned nearly 20 years. She founded Instant Insight Inc. in 1998 as a vehicle for launching a different career path as a writer and executive producer. As such, she created and executive produced a pilot episode for a children’s science show (www.curiousduck.com). She has B.S. and M.S. degrees in Physics from Marquette University.

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, artificial intelligence (AI) is, “1) a branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers, or 2) the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behavior.” The definition doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface as to how AI will impact humanity. To understand this branch of computer science, one must recognize that many companies have built business models that rely on compiling, storing, and analyzing staggering amounts of data, particularly personal data from our  (“the crowd”) daily online usage and transactions. The data is stored in what is called “the cloud,” or cloud computing: “the practice of storing regularly used computer data on multiple servers that can be accessed through the Internet.”

You only have to look at your own online experience with ads suddenly popping up on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone, to know that any interest you may have shown with online browsing, purchases, video and news viewing habits has been tracked and analyzed by all manner of consumer and financial business interests. This data is then used to predict what your next interest may be, so that you are fed pertinent information as you engage with your smartphone apps or online browsing. This prediction process is one kind of AI at work.

Economists and AI experts have differing estimates on job replacement caused by AI implementation. According to Brookings Institution, “roughly 36 million Americans hold jobs with ‘high exposure’ to automation — meaning at least 70% of their tasks could soon be performed by machines using current technology.” 

AI expert,Kai-Fu Lee, noted in a CBS interview that 40% of the world’s jobs will be replaced by robots capable of automating tasks, with those who drive for a living being the most impacted in 15-25 years. In Lee’s book, AI Super-Powers, China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, he presents charts that suggest which jobs could be considered relatively “safe” from replacement by automation in the foreseeable future. One can clearly see from the charts that many of the “safe” jobs are those that require some human touch but are not necessarily well paying. 

Historian Yuval Noah Harari has said that, “AI is nowhere near human-like existence, but 99% of human qualities and abilities are simply redundant for the performance of most modern jobs. For AI to squeeze humans out of the job market it need only outperform us in the specific abilities a particular profession demands.” Combining Lee’s and Harari’s observations, it appears that whether you like jobs dealing with people on a daily basis at a highly personal level or not, these may be the only professions not taken over by AI (e.g., home health aide, hair stylist, dog trainer, psychiatrist, concierge, etc). Realistically, however, how many jobs could there be in human-centric professions at any given time within a geographic area? And does anyone think that the wages for those professions will be sufficient to provide a decent living? Society may need to reckon with the fact that a large percentage of its citizens may have to do work that society deems useful, enriching and altruistic, but which has not historically been well paid. And those workers may need to have additional compensation provided by the government to avoid destitution through no fault of their own.

Politicians and the public at large have just recently started to realize the impact that high-tech has had on our collective ability to provide a sufficient number of high-paying jobs while also funding the social safety net. Some technology experts and economists have proposed a universal basic income (UBI), whereby the government provides every citizen with a set amount of money on a regular basis. The idea is to ensure that everyone will be above the poverty level. Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook, in his book Fair Shot, proposes a guaranteed income for working people, including unpaid caregivers and students. Democratic Presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, calls his idea of a UBI a freedom dividend. Instead of the usual UBI definition, Lee uses the term “social investment stipend,” which he describes as a “decent government salary given to those who invest their time and energy in those activities that promote a kind, compassionate, and creative society.”

Companies whose business models are based on the “crowd and cloud” need to recognize their debt to society at large. It was the public that funded much of the basic research and development (R&D) that resulted in the technologies (i.e., advanced semiconductors and semiconductor manufacturing, the Internet, GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth, etc.) that made their business models possible. As I noted in my last column, “Getting a return on investment is capitalism, not socialism!” those same companies did not invent the aforementioned technologies, yet they have benefitted from them handsomely, and in a manner that enables them to employ far fewer people relative to their market valuations than previous generations of business models. It is only reasonable that a capitalist society expect these corporations to give the public a fair return on investment (ROI) for the public’s early R&D funding. They need to pay their fair share of the tax burden. As a start, I would like to see such tax monies be used to ensure full funding of the social safety net. 

Additionally, getting a ROI for taxpayers would keep the U.S. competitive on the global stage by funding infrastructure improvements, education, life-long learning, and substantial basic R&D. We need a fully-funded National Innovation Strategy that encompasses 5G communications, advanced semiconductor and alternative computing technologies, AI, and other transformative technologies. Such planning and funding will be even more critical as AI causes more job displacement and disparities among citizens in the next 5-25 years and beyond.    

As AI “frees” people from doing the kind of work computers can direct and implement, humanity will have a much greater number of people available to do the kind of humane work of caring for others—a noble goal. Ensuring that such workers do not become poor and in dire need themselves, however, will be the challenge. It’s time for all citizens — including corporate citizens — to tackle this dilemma.