A funny thing didn’t happen on the way to work today.

I recently saw a Chinese factory owner say to the TV camera that two years ago, he employed 3400 Chinese from the local town. He recently installed two robots, has now doubled output and employs 800 workers. He will have paid off the investment within 18 months. A little later, another Chinaman, sitting astride a bike said: “We have 100,000 people trying to eat the same bowl of rice.”

That image is a manifestation of the impact of robotics and of Robotics parent, AI, the growing power behind many fears and much huzzahing. The arguments for and against this power are, in the main, pretty similar to that of Nuclear fusion. Essentially it will kill us… or it will save us.

The first fear is based on the near-instant loss of work, and with it, the loss of distributable income. No income leads to citizens’ loss of lifestyle and is followed rapidly by… Sans everything. A Government slow out of the traps, would inevitably face massive irreparable civil unrest, and with it a possible loss of power or worse a ghettoised population kept in poverty. That tiny snapshot of the Chinese town above, showed a 75%+ collapse in affordable employment in just two years. It is possible – and indeed has been mooted – that governments might be forced to pay unemployed citizens a universal basic income, (UBI), to avoid that scenario. UBI, the siren voice suggests, will provide Citizen Smith with the opportunity to pursue the Smith family dream, unburdened by the need to earn a living. It does not, however, remove the genuine likelihood of failed states where there wasn’t enough “anything” to pay anyone in any event. Nor would it remove the truly extraordinary inequalities that will exist financially, socially, in health and education and of course in lifestyle.

“Relax,” says, Mr Glass-Halffull. Grannies will be cared for by robots and e-pets. Governments will spend far less on solving climate change problems because swarms of nanobots will be doing something smart with the Ozone. We’ll all have ten tons of gold in our bank accounts because the robots will be mining the asteroids.

“Whoa”, says I. Because the one sure thing is that whenever humans ever attempt anything positive, it has always taken at least 75 years from gestation through traction to a successful outcome. On the other hand, almost every piece of long-lasting, life-impacting misery, has taken less than 20 years from the beginning of the cock-up to “Oh My God”.

The species really does need to think these things through. We need to know that the ability to grow meat in a lab taken from a still-walking chicken does not have an unintended consequence attached to it. The same applies to 5G and its short-wave ultra-strong signals, and surely the same must apply to the introduction of AI. I’m sure it will be fine – but why not check first and plan?

The fact that every time Civilisation is presented with two paths, it always barges down the one it knows nothing about, is not a plan. It is a genetic misprint! From Eugenics to Plastic from Nuclear Power to GM we don’t always get it right – in fact, we often barely get away with it. In the case of AI, we might all be wise to decide what the rules are going to be first, before we discover too late, we were the walking chicken.

 

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