Opinion, Science, STEM, Technology

Competing with Robots

Competing with Robots

By Richard Worzel [Traduire]

If you do any reading about the future of technology—it will blow your mind. Not only is the pace of change accelerating, but the rate of acceleration is increasing. One commentator, professional investor John Mauldin, says that we are entering an era of “perpetual future shock.” I see an incredible panoply of changes coming in a wide range of fields, everything from biotechnology, nanotechnology, genetics, bioengineering, medical research, materials science, the Internet, and many other areas. But the area that will shock us most will be computer intelligences and the rise of everyday robots.

New inventions take time to be absorbed into the marketplace and our lives. We  do not just throw away a brand new, flat-screen TV just because a 3-D version appears. (Or at least, most of us  do not.) It also takes time for companies to move something from a prototype in the laboratory to a floor model at a price that consumers will buy. Despite this, the changes of the next  ten years will make the changes of the last ten – or even the last twenty-five – seem tame in comparison. This is Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns that he illustrates from a 2001 essay:

“In the nineteenth century, we saw more technological change than in the nine centuries preceding it. Then in the first twenty years of the twentieth century, we saw more advancement than in all of the nineteenth century. Now, paradigm shifts occur in only a few years time. The World Wide Web did not exist in anything like its present form just a few years ago; it didn’t exist at all a decade ago.”

Kurzweil has been described as “Edison’s rightful heir,” and is a very successful, and very rich, inventor. Yet, while people often dismiss him as a wild-eyed wacko, he has made an awful lot of money by being right more often than the vast majority. If he is right, and if the signs I am seeing right now are correct, we will see the emergence of everyday robots within the next ten years.

This  will not happen in the home at first, in part because a machine sophisticated enough to be very useful around the home, even without the computer to guide it, would cost about the same as a new car. But in the workplace, replacing a worker for the price of a new car is a good deal. Not only can machines work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (except for maintenance and repair), but you only have to buy them once. You have to pay workers every year or they become very unhappy. Therefore, I expect to see robots, computer intelligences, and automation moving into the workplace in a big way.

It will start with routine, fairly simple work that  does not require judgment. This has already happened in the manufacturing industries, but it is happening in clerical work as well: computers processing information  are replacing humans. As just one simple example, people who prepare tax returns are widely being replaced by tax-preparation software that is increasingly sophisticated and routine wills are being  created by software rather than lawyers.

So far, such developments rely on “dumb” computers that simply do  what they are programmed to do by humans in combination with humans deciding what goes in the appropriate blanks. This will change over the next  ten years as more and more sophisticated software, such as genetic programming are combined with computers that are, say, 1,000 times faster than today’s computers  to create computers that seem to be human-intelligent.

Human-intelligent computers mean that humans, both adults and children have their work cut out for them if they want to compete and thereby stay employed. (And, by the way, yes, I do know that there is more to education than vocational training.) So how can we compete? I think the answer lies in three words: creativity, flexibility, and humanity; it is these three things that our education system needs to aim towards, not facts and information.
Creativity means doing new things and doing old things in new ways. Eventually, computers and robots will be able to do many, most, or all of the things that humans do. But humans are unpredictable and creativity is the constructive harnessing of that unpredictability. Therefore, one way of competing is to do things that no one has thought to program a computer to do. Of course, once it becomes clear that this is valuable, some bright spark will come along and figure out how to get a computer to do it, but until then, it is all ours.

Included in this is the creation of art and artifacts. I am not sure whether we will eventually reach the stage of having computers or robots create paintings, sculptures, or symphonies for us. I tend to think we  will not value them as highly as human works, but I could be wrong. But regardless, works created by humans will still be important and valued – at different levels, depending on the artist, as has always been the case, but valued nonetheless.

Flexibility means being able to jump in the deep end, figure out  is going on and then making something work. This is particularly true with the process of entrepreneurship, the creation of a new business. I have written two books on this subject, and I can tell you that at some stage in every successful, major entrepreneur’s career, they are faced with some kind of completely insurmountable challenge – which they then find a way to surmount. This is one illustration of flexibility.

As for humanity, another way of putting this is that the rise of automation will put greater emphasis on the so-called soft skills: things like teamwork, empathy, leadership, understanding, and genius. Being able to assemble a team of people, and lead them through incredible adversity, has happened over and over in human history, and is one of humanity’s defining traits. Being a team player that people want to work with is always and everywhere a career-enhancing trait. Understanding new circumstances and having empathy for people and their situations are both critical skills in a world where routine things will be handled by automation. (As one simple example, I deal with a particular satellite TV provider, not because they have the best prices or equipment, but because every time I call their service people, I come away vastly impressed, and wondering why all the service groups I deal with can’t be that good.)
And genius is why we live lives of historic luxury instead living in caves and blinking uncomprehendingly at the stars as we scratch at our fleas. It is the uniquely human trait that has made everything else possible.

So I have three challenges for you. First, check for yourself whether I am right or wrong about the upcoming changes in the next ten years and then think about what that will do to the workplace. Form your own opinions. Second, is the education system changing fast enough to cope with the changes ahead of us? And third: look at our education system and ask yourself: will it equip today’s students adequately for tomorrow’s world? And, if you decide I am right about the future and you don’t do not believe our education system is up to the task ahead, I have a fourth challenge for you: What kind of education system do we need and how do we get there?

Richard Worzel is Canada’s leading futurist. He volunteers his time to speak to high school students for free, when his schedule permits. Visit his website or e-mail at futurist@futuresearch.com.

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