Maintaining Human Autonomy in the Face of Automation

Any conversation pertaining to artificial intelligence has the potential to go in a myriad of different directions. As a topic, AI is arcane, intimidating, and extremely complicated both in its fundamental nature and all the implications that it has on our future.

For many, the goal of education is to equip themselves with marketable skills that will in turn position them to make a comfortable living. This view of education has resulted in certain disciplines coming to be viewed as more practical, in turn leading to the stigmatization of many non-technical fields. However, it may be posited that the advent of artificial intelligence will cause a significant re-evaluation of how we view education. As AI becomes more capable of providing answers to any questions we may have, our educational goals will shift toward fields that offer rewards in the search for answers, rather than simply in the discovery of them. Not only will there no longer be a pressing need for number-crunching, there will be a pressing need for answering the questions about how we use these tools now that we have them.

Furthermore, as AI advances, the fields that will likely avoid the encroachment of automation the longest will be those involving the soft, human skills that cannot be programmed.

The early indicators of this coming shift are already apparent. Most people would likely have laughed if a few years ago a philosophy major said they wanted to work for Google, and yet we are now seeing Google and other traditionally tech-oriented companies looking for advice on some of the philosophical questions arising from the development of AI.

Take self-driving cars for instance. The question of who an autonomous car should save in an unavoidable collision is a prime example of a question that cannot be solved with an equation or algorithm. Questions such as this will continue to arise, and as they do ‘marketable skills’ may come to encompass far more than it previously did.

Furthermore, as AI advances, the fields that will likely avoid the encroachment of automation the longest will be those involving the soft, human skills that cannot be programmed. Already, fields like finance, law, and medicine are undergoing a shift toward computers. A human role is still necessary, but at this point, it can now be leveraged with computers to an incredible degree. Algorithms, rather than people, are making investments. In a lecture about his work on using AI as a diagnostician, Jeremy Howard, a visionary in the field, explained that, “What we are doing here is replacing something that used to take a team of five or six [doctors] about seven years and replacing it with something that takes 15 minutes for one person.”

But these are only the short-sighted reasons for why the humanities will regain relevancy as we continue along our technological trajectory. The real need for a re-examination of priorities will arise when, as a society, we are faced with the prospect of a work-free world. While it is difficult to imagine such a reality, it is more likely than not to happen relatively soon. Most experts make estimates that human-level artificial intelligence will be achieved by 2042. Even accounting for excessive optimism by doubling the estimate puts the arrival of human-level AI only 50 years away.

Once we reach the point where computers are capable of human-level intelligence, humans will have no place in the labor market.

Once we reach this point, it will likely be too late to exert meaningful influence over how AI is incorporated into our society. This means we need to start planning for it now by adjusting our priorities accordingly. The incentives for studying disciplines within the humanities are already there if one looks only slightly into the future, and they will only become more apparent in the coming years for the reasons I’ve pointed to. Now is the time to examine our past strategies and learn how we can improve them for the future.

So far in human history we have gravitated toward science and technology as a means of solving our problems, but has this worked? Sure, advances have done incredible things for our standards of living, but there are clearly still many things wrong with the world. This is because developing tools is only one side of solving a problem. The other is knowing how to use them.

Once we reach the point where computers are capable of human-level intelligence, humans will have no place in the labor market. Human intelligence coupled with the power of computers (perfect memory, near-instant calculative ability, etc.) will make us clear inferiors at almost any task. This represents both a threat and an opportunity. The only way to realize the opportunity and avoid the threat is by vastly increasing our ability to have an intelligent discourse about how we design society.

This can only be done if we reorder our priorities. A return to the humanities and liberal arts is the only way we can begin to develop a more holistic framework with which to solve these problems, and this will only become more apparent in the future. Having reached a culmination of sorts with our technological advancement, we can now begin to address how best to use the unprecedented toolset we have.

As a society, we are only as strong as our weakest aspect, which, as evidenced by the easily observed global anxiety and unrest, is clearly our economic and societal structures. Without developing our capability to discuss these topics in a meaningful way, we’ll be stuck with all the drawbacks of our technology, but only a fraction of its benefits.

There should be room for the study of every subject in our education system. For far too long, we have allowed our decision-making to be shaped by the short-term. As we approach the steepest part of the exponential curve of technological development, this approach will no longer be sustainable. As computers advance, humans need to reassess our role in the world. It is only logical that the place for humans will be in the humanities.

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