Friday, September 11, 2015

Robotic California

Lots of talk now about robots and artificial intelligence. My interest was piqued by Martin Ford's Rise of the Robots, which I reviewed for Truthdig. Ford and others are raising the prospect of a jobless future as a result of accelerating automation. Most economists are dubious; automation isn't new, and past predictions of joblessness due to mechanization haven't panned out.

Some of my early training was in labor economics, so I'm following this discussion with interest. Martin Ford's prediction also reflects a Silicon Valley mindset that falls into my California culture basket. And because I teach humanities, I also want to understand what these authors say or imply about what makes us human.

In my Truthdig review of Ford's book, I note a series of conflations that don't add up for me. The key one is between computation and consciousness. If the latter doesn't reduce to the former, then increases in computing power won't necessarily produce machine consciousness. Ford never addresses that distinction, but many AI experts take it seriously.

Another conflation has to do with higher education. For Ford, higher ed means disseminating information more efficiently. I think it's more about transformation than information, which has never been cheaper or more abundant. The challenge now is to determine what information we can safely ignore. That used to be called "expertise" or "wisdom," neither of which lends itself to automation.

Finally, Ford's discussion conflates news with journalism. He predicts that robots will take over large portions of everyday news writing, which is another way of saying that not all news is journalism. I'm pretty sure we'll always have news; the question is, will we support journalism in the digital age? This isn't rocket science; lots of countries are already doing this quite well. But we've been trying to invent the ever elusive new "business model" for what should be regarded as a public good.

For me, the robotics conversation furnishes another example of why the humanities are indispensable, and I'm looking forward to reviewing two new books on this topic. More soon.