– Vaibhav Suranaa (PGP 2016)
THE FUTURE IS COMING
When I was little, I used to watch lots of sci-fi movies and cartoons. My favorite among them was the Hanna-Barbera classic, The Jetsons. I was really fascinated then by this future world where machines do everything for us and understand our needs and feelings. Little did I know that our real world was progressing towards such a society so fast. Robotic house cleaner, food printer, intelligent beds-we have them all, already! Every comfort though, comes with a price. Or so we are told at least.
Today, leading technologists, entrepreneurs and scientists are in unison when they predict a conceivable near future, where machines and artificial intelligence (AI) would replace the need for most human jobs and thus would leave entire populations ‘useless’. Celebrated historian Yuval Noah Harari asserts that this uselessness would stem from the irrelevance of human labor in the future economic and political system. More radical views from the arts and visual media propound the idea of comprehensive annihilation of our species through either a societal meltdown or through a prudent elimination of resource-straining biochemical sacks, us, by our AI masters.
ANTHROPOLOGY MEETS AI
There are widespread upheavals every time a massive, livelihood altering phenomenon occurs. From hunting-gathering to agriculture to industrial revolution and now automation, we have come a long way. It is interesting to note that the pace of every leap has increased after every big step we took as a species. But it has still been bound by the limits of our own intelligence and ambition. In an AI future though, computer programs may well become able to teach themselves to be more intelligent and efficient. In such a scenario, we might no longer be able to even conceive the complexities of such systems. If this happens, there is absolutely no way we can know what the AI would do with us and the world at large.
Since the consequences of superintelligence are anyway beyond our imagination, it would be prudent to plan for foreseeable changes. Along the journey to the future, there would, of course, be a paradigmatic shift in the role of humans but it is fundamentally hard to imagine a social system without them. Society as a concept is a creation of the human mind and any remote possibility of human existence will have to serve the purpose of survival and support, which society was meant to provide. And even if in a form extremely different from today’s society, the premise of an institution still revolving around human needs is perfectly feasible, given the validity of following inferences: First-AI might not suddenly just ‘feel like’ getting rid of us, because human intelligence and computer intelligence have evolved from radically different frameworks. Harari himself concedes that emotions and sensations are integral to human intelligence. On the other hand, computer intelligence is made up of algorithms for solving problems. And second- Issac Asimov’s laws of robotics, especially the zeroth law, dictates the progress of our incremental advances in programmed intelligence. And unless AI breaks the aforementioned super intelligence barrier, humanity may not be directly threatened by machines.
ARE WE READY TO ENTER THE FUTURE?
Advancement in technology, especially since the industrial revolution, has far outpaced biological evolution. Humans are not adapted for extreme stimulation of senses or high-speed travel or even long-sedentary hours. But here we are, neck-deep in heaps of advertising, driving Ferraris and working double shifts at the desk. And as our lifestyles have evolved, our requirements for nutrition, security and communication have also changed. Nutrition, among these, is the most important aspect for bodily survival and well-being. And as more and more traditional jobs get eliminated in the future, it seems inevitable that large chunks of the population would rely on a guaranteed monetary allowance, more popularly known as Universal Basic Income. And it has been shown in multiple studies, conducted across demographics, that humans do not tend to care much about working, exploring and learning if certain basic requirements of nourishment and recreation are met. So even without ‘evil’ robots, a Wall-E like future awaits humanity, at least in the economic and biological sense. AI and UBI, combined with no human performed jobs and only pleasurable-survival may lead to increasing concentration of fats, loss of muscle and bone, extreme immobility and greater bodily suffering due to increased lifespans. And this is not sci-fi, but proven possible correlations, obtained from present-day studies conducted on obese and less physically active people.
Our species has been very good at developing tools and procedures to make life and work simpler. Being able to hunt was a perfectly desirable human virtue before the stone-age but it soon got diluted in importance, first due to the invention of weapons and subsequently with the use of animals to track and hunt game for food. Similar cycles of a surge in demand and following obsolescence have been meted out to manual agrarian skills in the industrial age and to manual industrial labor, with the rise of automation.
Up until this point, it has been only manual work that has lost its importance. But computer intelligence has now already infiltrated high-cognition jobs like medicine, consultancy, and law. The importance of most white-collar professionals is set to decline even more rapidly than that of manual labor post automation. The phenomenon of a single global intelligence network will rob us of the long claimed supposed ‘human’ advantages, gained through subjective communication and knowledge sharing. The internet is only a primitive form of such a network. If historical trends are anything to go by, we will have to inevitably move to the kind of jobs that have so far been categorized as abstract. We will have to move from tasks of intelligence to the tasks of the heart. But not everyone will be able to change their way of life and livelihood so fast.
Just like self-driving cars are being taught to do their job by thousands of real cab drivers and car owners, advances in medical history storage and data-sharing are laying the groundwork for a ubiquitous AI for medicine. It will become very easy to diagnose and detect diseases, conditions and precursors. The advancement in human genome research and therapy will help in creating possibilities for drug and nutrition enhancements. The combinations can practically be infinite, with each person being a unique case, consuming a unique formulation suited to their body and requirements.
In the case of mass-consumption produce, AI can open doors to limitless intelligence about the end-to-end supply chain of food. In theory, micro-grids of edible materials can be laid down in a network of locally distributed pipelines. This would be similar to the power grids for electricity. The delivery could be done on demand by a consumer, just like tap water. The main application of AI would be to identify the consumer and their requirements really fast and dispense a mix made especially for them. The micro-grids may also take the form of networked vending machines, but individual replenishment and service would be more time consuming and inefficient.
All this may sound farfetched and may not be considered by policymakers unless there is a crisis in the traditional food & nutrition delivery networks. But can artificial intelligence save our present food system? Perhaps! From precision agriculture to weather-induced crop intervention, there are many potential technological applications in farming and food consumption. However, technical performance, user acceptability, and practical use of the modern technology continue to pose challenges.
MY PROBABLE RESPONSE TO AI
At a personal level, I have been passionate about food-tech and emerging nutrition delivery media and I see myself working in this space as an entrepreneur and researcher. Most of my current work has involved identifying ethno-geographical consumption patterns and combining biological & environmental factors for providing affordable personalized nutrition. Can this be disrupted by artificial intelligence and other emerging techs? Absolutely! An intelligent computer program with sufficient data points available to it would be able to do most of my present work much more efficiently. But in the scenario that I still remain relevant in the AI future, both personal and technological interventions would be needed to facilitate that happening. At the personal level, I would have to be open to skilling and re-skilling myself constantly with an ever-increasing frequency of intervention. But would my biological body by itself allow me such liberties? Maybe not.
But augmenting my body with bio-mechanical enhancements and integrating advanced computation technology with it, may help me keep up with AI and at the same time, lend some ‘human’ touch to the work I’ll do in the future. This is also supported by the results of controlled trials conducted with present day intelligent software and humans. In these trials, a combination of both human and computer can achieve much better outputs in lesser times as compared to either of them attempting certain jobs alone. The results had reasonably high confidence level and repeatability in such tasks which are concerned with more perceived ‘human’ aspects- like teaching Yoga, writing a love letter, composing music, decorating a cake according to a child’s mood etc.
Being able to communicate and work with AI would greatly enhance the rate of research. Not just in nutrition but in all of the scientific study. Other technologies can add synergistic effects to AI based research. Like the use of bionic exoskeletons to control exertion and strength can be integrated with an Iron Man like monitoring system which can take live inputs from surroundings, process data and store it for later use. With the presence of a global intelligence network, simultaneous observations may be made by researchers stationed far apart. Also, the hygiene and routine aspects of scientific study would be automatically taken care of according to the needs of the study and this would save a lot of time and effort.
NOT ALL ROSY
There are also a few negatives of AI that I can think of, with respect to the kind of jobs I see myself doing in the future. A global intelligence network and faster speeds and capabilities would mean that there would be lesser protection for intellectual property and proprietary inventions. Reverse engineering and rapid incremental value addition could become a piece of cake as AI capabilities would be capable of much more than just small improvements. The use of big data analytics will become as common as using a spreadsheet software. There is also an opportunity here, to discover and invent solutions that may be presently inconceivable. But lots of policy changes and active negotiation among all stakeholders would be needed. And that means a big overhaul of how the government functions and what role does it play. With increasingly intelligent systems being used to push life-like or even exaggerated stimuli, it would be necessary to have programs take care of our daily routines and physical necessities.
In the area of food & nutrition, AI definitely holds promise. Research, analysis, production, storage and delivery- the entire supply chain would be affected by emerging technologies and artificial intelligence may be the glue that integrates these technologies. Control of intelligent networks may use decentralization and blockchain to avoid a globally critical supply-chain falling in the wrong hands. Also, judgement calls in crucial cases like nutrition for terminally ill may be a grey area as it is presently not well understood how an AI system will decide and based on what sort of pattern understanding.
“The upheavals [of artificial intelligence] can escalate quickly and become scarier and even cataclysmic. Imagine how a medical robot, originally programmed to rid cancer, could conclude that the best way to obliterate cancer is to exterminate humans who are genetically prone to the disease.” – Nick Bilton, tech columnist New York Times
A World Economic Forum study in 2016 predicted that across 15 countries, about 5.1 million jobs will be lost to artificial intelligence over the next five years alone. To be honest, I am a little scared about what the AI future holds. Never ever have I been confronted by the possibility of being jobless and worthless. Also, it is dreading to think of almost all AI advancements being concentrated in the hands of a few honchos in Silicon Valley. Time will come sooner than we realize, when the human collective will have to ask some pressing questions.