One of those Moments That Becomes a Threshold Marker?

Roboter Roboy am AI-Lab der Uni Zürich

Meet Roboy, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I think, read, and write about education so it’s not surprising that this headline in the (paper) front page of The New York Times Business Day section caught my eye:

“Robots Exit the Classroom and Enter the Real World.”

I began to skim the article, assuming it was about the latest education technology or innovation push. Instead, I quickly realized that I was learning about something entirely different. And, possibly, a transformation that may soon change all of our work and home lives.

I’m not a programmer or any kind of technologist, but technology interests me and I enjoy the challenge to be the non-Luddite humanist. (No pot shots here on my preferred paper format for my news…I like to be “multi-sourced.”) I dug into the article and soon, an entirely new dimension of the “AI” buzz was sinking into my not-yet-gray-covered gray matter. Do you remember when you first realized how incredibly different a smart phone was from any of its predecessors? I remember that realization, and this was that kind of moment.

Humans think. Robots don’t. Humans teach robots what to do, and so long as robots take their cue from us, we won’t be completely obsolete. “The hope is that robots can master a much wider array of tasks by learning on their own,” writes Cade Metz. Gasp! Is that really our hope? It seems a bit terrifying. Super-duper repetition in the trial-and-error department, more elegantly termed, “reinforcement learning,” will build and expand these robots’ repertoire. If they can’t figure out how to open a door (to use Metz’s example in the article), they will laboriously try every trick they have until that door opens. Not as smart or resourceful as a toddler, but certainly more patient. Once learned, never forgotten.

Would I welcome Rosie the Robot taking care of that distasteful bathroom-cleaning chore? Without question. What happens when teams of Rosie the Robots take over hotel room cleaning, office cleaning, stadium cleaning? Maybe some of them do this already in more robot-receptive cultures such as Japan. As the magnitude of this labor market sea change takes hold, I think we might all be looking much harder at the universal basic income concept, because there are a whole lot of jobs with repetitive tasks that would be handed over to Rosie and her crew.

Automation is not a new threat (or opportunity). The concept that lingers with me is how close this research is getting towards human thinking. Problem-solving. Trial-and-error. Resourcefulness. So now I am really starting to get the “intelligence” part of “Artificial Intelligence.”

For balance, the article includes a few comments from skeptics. Their dismissive responses were not convincing. My thoughts wandered to the mind-boggling changes I see between my own children’s daily lives and what I would have predicted when I was their age. Heck, my grandmother was born before the automobile and the airplane!

We are in an exponentially accelerating crescendo of technology-enabled change. If you read historian Thomas Kuhn like I did in graduate school, his term for this cusp of dramatic change seems to apply more than ever: “paradigm shift.” So must think the latest group of innovators profiled in this article: Peter Chen, Pieter Abbeel and Rocky Duan. They have ‘graduated’ from Elon Musk’s A.I. lab because the moment seems ripe for a commercial breakthrough. More than different, easier, faster tools, it seems that we are truly on the threshold of some philosophical questions about what it means to think and whether humanity still claims the monopoly. For now, I’m debating whether to fight the urge to watch a clip of Hal.

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