Thursday, December 27, 2007

Humans as Pets

A thought keeps recurring to me every so often. We have always been at the top of the food chain, as Homo Sapiens anyway. We displaced other human type species such as Neanderthals before us (disclaimer: I am not an anthropologist so if I am using these terms incorrectly forgive me). We are smarter than all the other animals and up to now smarter than any machine. This is about to change.
I have been trying to think of jobs that humans do that could not be done better by machines and I have a difficult time coming up with much. Everyone knows the obvious examples. How often do you deal with bank tellers anymore? Supermarket cashiers (the automated checkout has never gotten distracted by a call from her boyfriend)? These are the most noticeable examples but it is only the beginning.
My background is in computer programming. Not rocket science designing killer application type stuff but mundane business related database reporting type stuff. Still, I understand logic and how computers think. The early computers were used by the military for computing trajectory tables for artillery. They required highly trained, extremely smart people to communicate with them. These computers required exactly the right input and could only do very specific tasks. They could do those tasks faster than humans but they could not gather data, make decisions or learn. Humans were more useful than computers because they could learn, adapt, and deal with uncertainty.
If you tell a human, go move that box from room a to room b, a normal human will do it with no further instruction needed. A computer needs detailed instructions for every step in the process and if something changes, say the defined path from room a to room b is blocked, the computer is stuck. A human, a reasonably intelligent one, would look for another path and would adapt. Computers in the past could not deal with uncertainty.
Now computers are starting to think. Since 2004, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has been holding annual contests for unmanned vehicles. In 2004, the race was held in the Mojave desert where none of the vehicles finished the race and the farthest went a little over 7 miles. The 2007 event was an urban setting where the vehicles had to obey traffic laws and react to other vehicles. 6 of the 11 teams completed this course. In 60 years, computers have evolved to a level that took millions of years in biological evolution. Pretty soon computers will be able to drive cars and do it better than a human. There will be programming errors and accidents but with computers those bugs will be fixed and once it is fixed for one computer the fix can be applied to all. We have not been able to fix human bugs such as falling asleep while driving, or being distracted by the beautiful blond jogging on the sidewalk.
If you think it won't be accepted by humans, it may be demanded by government the way seat belts and airbags are mandated today. There is little doubt that cars that drive themselves will be safer than humans driving them. Even with equipment failures that might cause some accidents, the number of fatalities would be minuscule compared to the 50,000 or so that are killed today. Trucks that can drive themselves would never need to stop other than for fuel. They could be kept moving 24/7 365 days a year. Today a driver can only drive 11 hours before they have to rest for 10 hours. If you want to keep the truck moving, you have to send two drivers.
Do you think jobs of computer programmers will be safe? Pretty soon the computers will be intelligent enough to deal with end users directly. The end user will be able to describe what they want to do and the computer will be able to design and setup a system faster and more efficiently than any programmer could. Programmers constantly make mistakes and learning a programming language is a slow process. Most of the time programming is spent testing and debugging the mistakes made. Besides that, a lot of the programming code needed is already written and reusable.
How about investment professionals, stock pickers? How many variables can you keep in your head at one time about a company? How many companies can you analyze at one time and compare with each other? Computers are already doing this and presenting results to users to make decisions. Eventually computers will be making these decisions themselves.
So where does this leave humans? I am not a doomsday prophet. I am not painting some kind of "Terminator" movie scenario. These are legitimate questions. The main question is this: Will hiring a human to do a job become some form of charity or welfare mandated by the government to keep people employed? In the coming years in every job it will make more sense to use a machine instead of a person. How will this affect humans knowing they have a job, not for their expertise and ability but because the government has mandated it to keep the economy going. My guess is that as the capabilities of machines increase the government will step in and mandate certain employment levels of humans. They will have enormous support for this from workers and from business. This will become a cost of doing business. It will also probably result in competition to lobby government for reduced employment quotas in certain industries.
This is almost like observing a black hole. In physics you have the theory of General Relativity which has equations that can be used to make predictions about the universe. These formulas break down however when applied to singularities (black holes) and are not relevant. I love capitalism but how will capitalism function in a society where humans are no longer needed to exploit resources and produce goods. Capitalism and free markets are the best ways of distributing finite resources that humanity has come up with. It is capitalism and free markets allow us to have individual freedom. Will technology eliminate or endanger this?

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