AI: Savior or Curse?

The first observation in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was on the division of labor. More specifically, how an economy, as it progresses, becomes increasingly compartmentalized into specialized divisions that produce a particular good or service. For example, a single shoe maker will not be as fast, or efficient as 10 shoemakers doing a particular part of the same shoe. Today’s division of labor is being supplied by advanced in artificial intelligence. The creation of a digital mind that can perform complex, human-like tasks is being implemented on a wide scale in enterprises. This has brought great gains in productivity, but also challenges in it’s usage.

Recently, a machine-learning program at JPMorgan just saved it 360,000 hours of interpreting mundane loan agreement. Google uses an AI program to save 15% on it’s energy expenditures at it’s data centers. These and many other examples are playing out in the world right now. Increasing productivity in organizations and thereby making them wealthier.

However there is also the ever-looming challenge of implementing the AI. Unlike a software program, the AI must be trained with huge amounts of data. If the data were corrupt, if the training algorithms were off, or the skills required by the AI don’t match the application for which it was designed, it could easily become a multimillion dollar mistake.

AI doesn’t solve everything, nor is it a technology to be dismissed. Like anything, it is a tool whereby we can use to our advantage, if we think about it carefully enough. If we see AI as a means, rather than an end in itself, business and organizations can bring about the new, 4th revolution that the internet for now has failed to deliver —apparently people feel more distracted than wise when watching compilations of cat videos or seeing the zillionth newborn baby on their Facebook feeds.

A prayer of thanks

A little background: I was sitting in an airport, letting the hours pass by before I boarded my flight. I had some very busy days before, and it had been some since I last worked out. I could feel my body relaxing, my muscles easing and my back aching from sitting so long. I longed to be playing sports, to feel the wind rush in my face, to feel the pain of lifting heavy weights. It’s a good kind of pain, the type that makes you stronger (both literally and figuratively). In a flash, I decided to write a poem to describe these feelings I had. I’ve since come back to it many times. I like it, and maybe by sharing it here you too might be able to benefit from saying it.

How I long again to feel my muscles stretch,
To look ahead for the ball I seek to fetch,
To the ribboned finish line that’s yet to break,
To the net that sleepily waits to be fast awake.

How I long to have sweat run through my brow,
To feel pain overtake the pillars of iron I’ve trained to plow,
Opponents, obstacles, challengers of the prize,
I seek to win somehow.

How I seek to run through mountains,
Swim in oceans, fly across space,
Seek inside my mind a treasured place,
Where body, mind and soul coalesce,

In the quiet scene of battle I guard my heart
And strengthen my will.
In the defining seconds of the game,
I remember my skill,
And rise again with zeal.

The lonely practices, the sacrifices I made,
The friendships I keep and hopes I’ve prayed
-to never fail, to never surrender,
To keep my character firm in splendor.

However grey the situation can become,
In whatever challenge I must overcome,
I can safely say “Thy kingdom come-
Thy will be done.”
Yes Lord, I attach myself to You, the only One.

The first champion of the universal race.
The only goal worthy of lifelong chase.

Amen

A walk to Chipotle

It’s noon, and the smell of lunchtime -beans, pork, grease- permeated downtown Buckhead. People from all backgrounds congregate to the hallowed hall of Chipotle at a corner intersection for physical (and I daresay, spiritual) renewal. I walk in and stand in the long line behind the counter.

There’s a young, well dressed man in front of me, and a moment later, a joyful woman strides in with her two best friends. At first, I couldn’t help but admire the young man’s well-tailored suit and trimmed hair. He was wearing a tan leather belt with spotless buckle, cuffed shirt and double-strap monk shoes -which of course, matched his belt.

A true, walking stock photo.

Suddenly, my attention was shifted to the loud talking of the woman behind me. She was a tall but delicately built black woman, with a pin in her business outfit that read, “Cousins,” and a logo right beside it. A humanitarian organization, judging by her warm smile and apparent social connections. She and her friends were about chatting all the time I was in line. I wasn’t paying attention. Still, I chuckled inside.

It’s amazing how, with all the varieties of human experience, we are still drawn to the same things: power, money, love and of course, good food.

I devoured my burrito in a heartbeat. The hotness of the Tabasco sauce briefly made me feel like I could breathe fire. Endorphins kicked in my brain, tingling it with a satisfying sensation. How wonderful and blessed it is that modern industry can feed the whole population in a dazzling array of colors, tastes and combinations. We can safely assume that we’ll be fed today, and that’s a wonderful realization. One we’re prone to easily ignore, considering the history of humanity.

My parting words before I leave are this: let us rejoice and be glad, for indeed, we can all get along with each other and sit at the same table together, as long there’s good food, decency, and good cheer.

The Wheel of Fortune Turns for Everyone

Betrayed. Jailed. Abandoned. These were probably some of the things that were running through Boethius’ mind as he awaited his eventual torture and execution under false pretenses. One of the brightest minds of his day, and having climbed to the top of the political ladder, Boethius’ friends gave false testimony of him as a traitor to the king, who promptly had him jailed without due process.

Boethius loved astronomy, mathematics and the philosophy of the greeks. Although he was a Christian, he was well-known because of his translations of greek philosophy that were used for almost a thousand years before the recuperation of lost texts during the renaissance. But this wasn’t in Boethius’ mind. He had served the King well, and tried to live out a good Christian life; yet he was miserable, while the wicked reveled.

How could God permit such a thing?

During his time in his cell, he wrote a masterpiece called The Consolation Of Philosophy, which tried to answer this question by having God’s wisdom embodied as Lady Philosophy. She visits him in his cell, and they exchange a dialogue, with Lady Philosophy explaining how small our minds are to comprehend the will of God.

In this passage, Fortune (embodied as a god) speaks to Boethius’ desire to justice. Her answer might not be what you’d expect.

When nature produced you from your mother’s womb,
I received you naked of all things and helpless,
kept you warm with my resources and,
whereas now it makes you impatient with us,
I brought you up under the easy favor of indulgence,
surrounded you with all the abundance and splendor
which are right for me.

Now it pleases me to withdraw my hand:
be grateful as for the use of another’s;
you have no right of complaining
as if you absolutely lost yours.
Why then do you groan?
No violence is brought against you from us.

Wealth, honors and the rest of such things are right for me.
The servants recognize the mistress:
they come with me; with my going away they depart.
Boldly I declare, if these were yours
which you bemoan are missing,
you never would have lost them.

–The Consolation of Philosophy, Book 2

Now compare this passage to God’s response to Job, when he complained to God about his own misfortunes, and demanded infinite goodness to justify Himself after all the evil that had fallen on Job.

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?

 Tell me, if you understand.

Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!

Who stretched a measuring line across it?

On what were its footings set,

or who laid its cornerstone—

while the morning stars sang together

and all the angels shouted for joy?

–Job 38:4-11

A popular saying goes, “the wheel of fortune turns.” Sometimes good things happen to those who are good, and bad things to the wicked; and sometimes, just the opposite occurs. There’s no rhythm or pattern to the fortunes of our lives. God gives and takes away freely. There will never be a time for a person to say, “now I am content, all will be good with me”, or, “nothing good is going to come. I am cursed.” The wheel of fortune indeed keeps turning. There’s an excellent video by The Bible Project that explains this in much greater detail, and their animations are absolutely stunning. I’m putting it here for you to take a quick look:

We must watch ourselves not to get too hung up on the turns of this wheel, rather taking life as it comes with a certain detachment from our earthly fortunes, and trusting instead on a more solid anchor than Lady Fortune. Thus does the book of Ecclesiastes fittingly ends:

Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter:

Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.

For God will bring every deed into judgement, 

including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

A prayer for humility

How dark and twisted paths does the river of time run!

Who could guess that the roaring streams of paradise,

Were quietly born in breathless heights of frost?

I run the race of life, but how would I know I’d won?

 

We build great castles as memorials of our pride,

Accumulate treasures that shine brighter than the sun,

Hold ourselves esteemed as a glowing bride,

And think, “I am mighty. From me do all rivers run.”

 

Oh puny human, how small and and defenseless you are.

“From dust you have been made, and to dust you shall return.”

You are bound to fate like a reed blowing against the wind,

Helpless as the sowers reap with the might of those above.

What could you possibly dream, and wish it were as planned?

How can you hold yourself king of all, yet master of none?

 

We sail the vile seas, cross deserts of death and climb mountains,

Our lives hang by a thread, yet there’s One who holds us up,

There’s One whom we can anchor ourselves and count in.

When all else fails, he tenderly whispers “take my cup.”

 

We are indeed masters of our ship, captains of our destiny.

For the waves we sail are guided by His gentle hand,

And the halls of eternal light are shone by His will supreme.

And though our boat may be rocked or stuck in sand,

Though our spirit be banished and heart struck by sword,

We can safely say, “Lord, let it be done according to your word.”

 


Let me live in poverty, oh Lord, completely dependent upon you. Having nothing for myself but your love. Amen.

 

The war no one talks about

We are in the midsts of a massive, global war campaign.

There aren’t any corpses (that we know of), no open-plain battlefields, no guns to see. I’m talking about the daily battles being fought in cyberspace between people, groups and nations. Now, these kind of attacks are indeed talked about, but barely at all compared to the scope of what is being carried out. I believe there needs to be more exposure to the dangers of cyber-terrorism and government malware attacks. To ignore, provide dumbed-down explanations or categorize these attackers as solitary lurkers is dangerous and is letting the enemy take the upper hand. Let me explain.

“War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means” – Carl von Clausewitz.

Hacking traces its roots longer than you’d expect. In 1988, a graduate student from Cornell introduced a worm to ARPAnet (the precursor to the internet), infecting 6,000 government and university servers with a worm. He was fined $10,000 and sentenced to three years of probation (New York Times).

In 2010, Stuxnet was first discovered, and believed to be a sophisticated cyber-weapon jointly built by American and Israeli military forces designed to destroy Iranian nuclear centrifuges.

In 2011, the PlayStation Network was hacked, exposing the private information of 77 million players, in one of the largest data breaches in history. (CBC News).

Earlier this year (2017), the malware WannaCry infected over 230,000 computers, demanding a Bitcoin ransom payment in order to unlock the computer. Over $130,000 was collected by the hackers. The money was laundered through a Chinese bitcoin network -making the money impossible to trace, and the hackers remain at large.

Countries_initially_affected_in_WannaCry_ransomware_attack
Countries affected by WannaCry attack

Hackers, and malware they use, have become increasingly complex, with a larger set of victims at stake. Money has been the primary goal of these hacking attacks, but what would happen if our connected devices become the target?

All these examples are astounding, but none can compare the to the recent hacking attack on Ukraine that devastated the country’s infrastructure. Banks, airports, companies and utilities were knocked out in what is appearing to be a state-sponsored attack by Russia. If this attack were done with target missile strike, it would have classified as an open declaration of war.

Now why am I painting such a bleak picture here? Because it’s reality, it’s what’s actually happening in the world, and yet we still forget our passwords, struggle using computers and continue to use passwords like “12345”, and “password” (seriously, these were some of the top-used passwords in the world last year. Please change your password now if it is like any one of these).

John Steinback once said that “all war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.” I can whole-heartedly disagree. There is a lot of thinking behind warfare, and the technical complexities involved in creating malware are a testament to the capacity for man to use his/her reason to inflict damage. In fact, there’s another term for kind of action, it’s malice, and it’s the last (and worst) ring of hell in Dante’s inferno. Even in hell, there’s a special place for those who use their intellectual faculties for evil purposes.

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A snapshot of all the world’s cyber attacks by Cyber security firm Norse as of the time of this publication

Let me go back to my opening quote by Clausewitz. Although hacking started as a solitary activity for edgy computer programers, it has evolved to become part of every country’s defense strategy. Leaders will come to see cyberwarfare as an undercover way of obtaining information, sabotaging enemy assets, smearing campaigns (look no further than the 2016 American Presidential Election) and much more. Computer programming is far beyond the realms of engineers and nerds, it is an essential component of society, and must be embraced by its population as an essential skill to learn. Many times, we interact with machines more than we interact with other humans. It is common sensical therefore, to know our tool’s nuances and workings.

A carpenter knows his tools well and knows when and how to fix them should they fail for some reason. Computers are unfortunately immensely complex machines, created by some of the smartest people in history and machined down to the individual atom. We are hopeless to know how a computer works as we could with say, a hammer. However, I still believe it is our duty to try, and in doing so, we could be better informed and protected from attackers that might want to steal our data.

Since every computer is connected to the internet, and the internet connects every device on earth, it creates a highway whereby anything can interact with the raining streams of data criss-crossing one another. We must shift our mentality from seeing things in a physical dimension and switch instead to a digital dimension. Updating our computers and not clicking on phony emails is good, but not enough. We must engage in a holistic campaign to protect our infrastructures, businesses and personal devices, and that starts with the population having the basic knowledge to protect themselves from these kind of attacks.

The United State’s 2nd amendment allows militias the right to bear arms, it is time that this understanding expand for its citizens to arm themselves with the necessary defenses from malware attacks -for the sake of themselves, their business, and their country.

Apps are dead. Long live AI!

Consider this: I want to book a flight from Atlanta to New York for next weekend, and want to get the cheapest ticket available. I also I want it to be with an airline that is connected to my rewards program, preferably on a flight that has wi-fi. How would I do it? I will present two scenarios:

The traditional app way:

  1. I open up my phone and search for flights in the American Airlines app.
  2. I filter it to get a cheap flight that has wifi
  3. Unfortunately it’s too expensive, so I open up my Delta app and repeat the process.
  4. I finally find a flight with a good price, I select it.
  5. I log in and input my credentials
  6. I follow the on-screen instructions and pay with my credit card
  7. I get the ticket and add it to my phone

This is the fastest way you can obtain a flight today. It’s not bad, but I do have to sit down to do all the process. Now entertain for me please, the following vision of an AI-based interface:

The AI way:

  1. I open up my phone, hold a button and say, “Find me a cheap flight from Atlanta to New York for next weekend, make sure it has wi-fi.”
  2. The AI replies, “I found you a couple flights. The top choice is a non-stop Delta flight that departs at 10:00am and costs $250. Would you like me to buy it?”
  3. I reply back, “sure!” and the AI responds, “Great! I put your ticket in your phone”

The AI interaction in this situation is superior to the traditional app interface. It’s faster, more engaging, and makes the hassle of booking a flight less so. Now, I’m not saying that every single interaction should be replaced by AI. There are indeed some instances where its better off that you see a screen and make a decision for yourself. But the fact of the matter is that having an AI is like having an assistant: it reduces logistical hassle and presents you with curated information that is relevant and useful.

ai

Because of the superior productivity that AI provides, I believe that apps will be supplanted by AI services as the primary interface we have with our digital devices. In the long-run, natural conversation (whether it’s in speech or in a text conversation)  with AI programs, designed to serve particular needs, will be the go-to approach for us to interact with our devices.

I envision a future where there will be a “general” AI installed on your device (think of Siri or Alexa), connected to multiple AI services that specialize on a particular subject eg. Finance, biology, football, etc. These specialized modules will have large corpuses of data specific to their topic and allow users to get information or perform tasks particular to that area of knowledge.

There are some who would say, “this is great! AI will take over and we wouldn’t have to work anymore!” Which I completely disagree. Automation does not equal lack of work for people. It simply means that we can better allocate our skills to other areas. Creating all of these different AI services will mean that thousands of developers will be needed to build them, and millions of people will be required to run the companies that collect, assemble and input all of human knowledge into artificial intelligent systems.

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Artists, writers, thespians, anthropologists, designers and a whole host of creative people will be required to create the scripts and personalities that run these systems. Far from making people unemployed and heralding the death of humanities, the mass-production of AI services will be a renaissance for the humanities as it explores how to re-create an artificial human mind that can service its creators.

Should we become worried if these AI systems become our robot overlords, as Hollywood movies and Elon Musk portray? You’ll find out in my next blog post, so stay tuned!

The real problem of AI

I’m going to cut right to the chase here. There’s a growing problem in having advanced AI algorithms taking over human tasks while possessing little, to non-existent ethical benchmarks that assess their actions.

Think of these AI systems as a small child. They will learn about the world through their senses, and depending on their experiences, they will draw conclusions about the world. In the same manner, what we feed into our AI systems will determine how they think and how they’ll act. What happens then, when a robot acts in a way that is advantageous to it’s program but disadvantageous to the welfare of people?

Suppose an autonomous car is travelling along a road. It detects a small object. We would see it as a child (probably who’s run away from his home) and is lying down in this desolate road. The truck senses the size of the object but doesn’t think its poses any risk to it’s driving. It can’t veer around because the road is small, and it has a high priority override to deliver express packages by the evening. The truck judges the risk of the object to the truck to be minuscule, so it proceeds. Ending the life of the child.

This is one such example of what could happen if we don’t properly train our AI to make good moral judgements. A proper judgement requires full knowledge of the situation, so as to assess all the facts. It requires a conceptual idea of good and evil, in order to pursue good and prevent evil, even if it’s at the cost of economic gain. It also requires the proper capacity to judge circumstances. These and many other such considerations need to be put into the algorithms of our ai.

I mentioned something that is extraordinarily important. So important, and striking, that you probably just missed it. The concept of imbuing machines with notions of “good” and “evil.” These notions are necessary, because they are the last reins of judgement when we decide to do something. I might be asked to collaborate on an insider trading scheme. I could feel the pressure to act accordingly because if not my manager could fire me. I could feel the allure of the money that I will be making. However, I know in my heart that this would be the wrong thing to do. And so, refusing all personal gain and instead facing all to lose, I refuse to cooperate, because I sense it is the wrong thing to do.

Similar judgement should be imparted on our robots as they slowly start to overtake more complex, personal jobs from us. AI robots are designed to maximize productivity. But in the case that harm could be done, it must recognize the consequences of its action and act in the way that is best for the prosperity and flourishing of its creators. It should be the last line of defense for any person living near an ai system, so that they might be assuredly protected from unintended harm.

I cannot say how the concept of good and evil will manifest in an algorithm. It seems like so much more intuitive than a set of logical parameters. I might try to tackle this on another post.

 

#Throwback to 400AD

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I walked this morning to Starbucks, as I usually do on Sundays, and decided to take a break from reading the Lord of the Rings series. Much as I love Tolkien’s epic, sweeping tales, I wanted to go for something more intimate and philosophical – enter St. Augustine.

His book The Confessions, has been a profound influence in my life. I think I first read him when I was 20 and find him endlessly relevant to our times. Yes, who knew a 1500 year-old book could compete with an AI chatbot? Below is an excerpt from Book 10, Chapter 27:

 

Late have I loved you,
O Beauty so ancient and so new,
late have I loved you!
You were within me, but I was outside,
and it was there that I searched for you.
In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
Created things kept me from you;
yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.
You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.
You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.
You breathed your fragrance on me;
I drew in breath and now I pant for you.
I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.
You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

I have no words to follow this poem. Anything I would dare to add would not do it justice. Thus, I’ll end this post here and provide an excerpt on St. Augustine where you can learn more about this titanic figure of Western civilization. I hope to find more of my Augustinian readers out there 🙂

Also, you might be wondering why I posted an image of a child laughing. I chose it because that’s exactly how I feel when reading Augustine -joyful and completely at ease. His life fits inside the mold of my soul. Reading him talk so eloquently brings me an extraordinary sense of pride for my faith and affirmation that everyday of our lives we can build, brick by brick, the foundations of love that hold up the eternal City of God.

 

St. Augustine, born in Roman N. Africa to a devout Catholic mother and a pagan father, was a notoriously rebellious Catholic teenager who cohabitated with a girlfriend, joined an exotic Eastern cult, and ran away from his mother.

Augustine became a brilliant and renowned teacher of public speaking and was appointed by the emperor to teach in Milan, Italy, at that time the administrative capital of the Western Roman Empire. While there, he happened to hear the preaching of the bishop of Milan, Ambrose, who baptized him in 386.

St. Augustine ultimately renounced his secular career, put away his mistress, and became first a monk, then a priest, then the bishop of Hippo, a small town on the N. African Coast. The voluminous writings of this Early Church Father span every conceivable topic in theology, morality, philosophy, and spirituality. St. Augustine of Hippo is commonly recognized as the great teacher in the Western Church between the New Testament and St. Thomas Aquinas.  He died in AD 430.  (bio by Dr. Italy)

What I learned from building a neural network. Hint: the robots are coming!

I’m taking a developer certification for using IBM’s Watson AI, and one of the learning requirements is to understand the basics of artificial neural networks. In order to retain the information better and to understand the underlying processes, I decided to actually create a neural network, with the help of Stephen Welch’s excellent “Neural Networks Demystified” video series. You can see part one below:

I honestly did not expect it to be so complicated. Of course, it’s machine learning, it’s not supposed to be easy; but still, the amount of equations that described even the basics of a neural network were…out of my comfort zone to say the least. Nevertheless, it was eye- opening. Artificial neural networks (ANN) are a mathematical and programmatic representation of how neurons and axioms work. I am not going to delve into the mechanics of it, but it suffices to say that these ANNs are the beginnings of a general artificial intelligence: one that can think, understand and display intuition.

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A demonstration of how Artificial Neural Networks mimic real, biological neurons. Source: InTech

The implications for this kind of technology are profound. It got me thinking about the economics of implementing such a system, only to realize that we are already in the midsts of a global upheaval thanks to the introduction of machine learning algorithms.

In 2011, Marc Adreessen, an early investor in Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and many other Silicon Valley “unicorns,” wrote:

“Software is eating the world.”

His statement still holds true, but I’d change it slightly to say, “AI is eating the world.

Unfortunately, the general public’s conception of AI is limited to Hollywood movies, and is almost completely abstracted from the real-life implementations of this technology. Many are unaware of how much this technology has infiltrated their lives. You can attribute your Netflix binging and endless Youtube video watching to the power of machine learning algorithms providing you with “suggestions” and “recommendations.” These services profile every move of yours, every bit of information, to pinpoint your demographic and provide you content that statistically fits with other people like you.

Yes, in AI, you are just a statistic.

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But AI does much more than that. Look no further than autonomous cars, self-running factories in China, and virtual assistants to see how this technology will seep into every industry of the market.

With such a powerful tool in our hands (quite literally), it is unfortunate that the labor market, and the institutions that feed into it, are not prepared for this transformational change. Most universities don’t have AI programs in place. Coding is still seen as being in the realm of engineers and nerds. Companies still operate with old OS versions of Microsoft Vista and use fax machines to exchange information. A large portion of the economy is simply lagging behind when it comes to it’s ability to change and adapt to an AI-based economy.

Now, this is not all fault of their own. Artificial Intelligence is a very complex subject, as I initially discovered. It requires advanced mathematics, advanced programming experience and a good amount of years in the practice to develop an effective AI architect. The amount of resources invested to produce such a focused individual is akin to the training regiment of a special forces soldier. It takes a lot of time, energy and talent to produce this worker of the future. However, such a worker will become indispensable for the future economy.

AI is like having a self-replicating mind. Another mind that does not need to be fed, does not sleep, does not complain, does not need health insurance, and is millions of times more powerful in mathematical computation than any person alive. It is the virtue of a capitalist society to employ such a tool if it deems it economically advantageous. It would be illogical not to employ it.

But herein the crux of the matter: A few amount of people will be extremely productive in the creation of wealth thanks to their use of AI, but what will become of everyone else?

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Greater productivity is the holy grail of economics. It means the country can produce more, for less, at a faster pace. Global productivity exploded after the industrial revolution, thanks to industrial machines. Then, it sharply increased again with the advent of computational machines. Now, it’s due for another increase with the advent of commercial artificial intelligence. Here are three reasons why I believe the rise of AI is bad news for the global labor market:

1) Job replacement will happen faster than job creation

2) Productivity will be focused in a corporate oligopoly

3) “Enormous Data” will provide these companies a competitive advantage over the rest of the market

 


 

Job Replacement

This is a big one, especially since it’s become so politicized in the last couple of months. Jobs are always replaced by the coming of newer technologies. When the car became mass produced, the horse carriage industry (the traditional mode of transportation for centuries) underwent an irreversible decline. However, the collapse of this industry was supplanted by an even greater upswell of economic wealth created by the car: stables were supplanted by gas stations, horse drivers by valets, streets needed to be paved, cars needed to be maintained, manufacturing increased in order to keep up with the demand, etc. Thus, older technologies are usually supplanted by newer ones thanks to the new jobs it creates.

In an article for MIT Technology Review, Joel Mokyr, a leading economic historian at Northwestern University commented on the increasingly fast pace of disruption:

The current disruptions are faster and more intensive…It is nothing like what we have seen in the past, and the issue is whether the system can adapt as it did in the past.

He further states how jobs that require automation -usually reserved for the lower classes of workers- will be the most susceptible to this change. If these workers are to keep their jobs and adapt to the new AI economy, they must obtain a degree in computer science or a similarly technical field, as well as a specialization in whatever field they will be working in. This kind of education is expensive, and it falls within the responsibility of the government to fund for their re-education. These blue-collar workers usually do not have the resources to pay for a college education. If the government doesn’t help these workers, they simply won’t be able to re-educate themselves for the changing market needs and will fall into poverty. David H. Autor supports this view in his piece for the Journal of Economic Perspectives, “Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation.” He argues that, due to the rapidly changing dynamics of the AI economy, job displacement will rise significantly if education programs for low-skilled workers does not take place:

…human capital investment must be at the heart of any long-term strategy for producing skills that are complemented by rather than substituted for by technological change.

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A Minnesota factory worker with Google Glass 2. Source: Wired Magazine.

Nevertheless, he’s still fairly confident that AI will not completely displace jobs, but rather complement them. Many blue-collar workers such as plumbers, electricians, HVAC installers and others will use AI to become more productive in their jobs, but not necessarily be replaced completely by it. I agree with his view. Microsoft and Google have both released virtual reality goggles that are being tested to aid workers in their day-to-day work lives. The machine tells the maintenance worker where to put the screws on, where he can find the part that’s missing, etc. In fact, Google has already implemented a revamped version of it’s hyped Google Glass product on a factory in Jackson, Minnesota (This is an highly interesting article which I will probably comment on another time. You can find the original article from Wired magazine here). I do not want to dwell on these commendable efforts. Rather, I am much more concerned with the employees of large corporations that perform task-intensive jobs day-in and day-out. Think of the thousands of workers in Foxconn factories building iPhones, or truck drivers delivering merchandise. It is estimate that self-driving trucks, “could threaten or alter 2.2 million to 3.1 million existing U.S. jobs.” What will happen then? A commenter for the previously mentioned MIT article had some truthful insight when he wrote:

The problem is not the technology: it’s the implicit and explicit social and business agreements we have presently in society.

The ultimate problem with job displacement is not so much an issue with unavoidable technological advances that will lead people without jobs. It’s that us, as a society, have failed to properly organize ourselves to fit the needs of the market and put in the required resources into the training and well-being of our workers. Public companies are put under immense pressure to perform, and have put profits over its people (not that it’s a new issue). If we are to avoid a massive displacement of jobs, we need government and businesses to employ appropriate measures to protect its workers by providing them with the necessary education and skills that will enable them to stay competitive in an AI economy It is our duty to use our God-given talents to help others, and therefore the virtue of a good society to provide means for its people to achieve this end.

 

Corporate Oligopoly

Ah, we enter into a favorite topic of doomsayers and conspiracists. The idea that a few companies will reap most of the profits from a market is far from new: Six movie studios receive almost 87% of American film revenue (boxofficemojo.com), Facebook and Google account for almost 50% of the online ad market and are responsible for 99% of online ad growth, Russia is still controlled by a few oil producers, etc. The list of examples would be endless, and oligopolies aren’t always bad for an economy. They can streamline the production process for goods and services, lower prices for consumers, and provide greater profits to its shareholders.

I strongly believe the AI market will inevitably become an oligopoly (if it isn’t one already), and profits will become even more concentrated in the future. Facebook, Alphabet (parent company of Google), Amazon, Alibaba, Microsoft and Netflix are the leading technology companies in the world. They’re all S&P 500 stocks, have delivered returns much greater than the market, are leading the world in AI implementation and innovating at the fastest rates as well. They also show no sign of slowing down. They have methodically disrupted every industry they have touched -the release of a trademark from Amazon was enough to plunge meal-kit delivery company Blue Apron by more than 30%-, and have digitized many of their processes. They have also concentrated the wealth of these industries among relatively small teams. WhatsApp was bought by Facebook for $50 BILLION and had only 50 employees…50 EMPLOYEES.

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Careful there! Each one of these employees is worth $1 billion

Due to a talent shortage in data and AI, these companies compete one another by offering perks and stock options to employees. Startups also frequently do this, as a way to defer salaries to its employees while it starts earning money. Its fine and all, except when these companies grow to enormous valuations and the first few employees hold the majority of the company’s wealth. Amazon still pays its warehouse employees $12 the hour (per Glassdoor), while the company’s valuation is worth $500 billion and its CEO is the richest man on earth (as of July, 2017). A recent article by the Guardian newspaper showed how Nicole, a cafeteria worker for Facebook’s headquarters, still lives in a garage with her family and barely making ends meet. “He doesn’t have to go around the world,” said Nicole. “He should learn what’s happening in this city.” She’s referring to Zuckerberg’s highly publicized world tour that started as his new year’s resolution to “get out and talk to more people.”

“They look at us like we’re lower, like we don’t matter,” said Nicole of the Facebook employees. “We don’t live the dream. The techies are living the dream. It’s for them.” Source: The Guardian

It’s unfortunate cases like Nicole’s that highlight the growing divide between the middle class and the high class being populated by techies. In a new report highlighted by CNBC, a record number of Americans were millionaires in 2016 – there was also a record 50% decline in the people who qualify as middle class, and “One in three say they couldn’t come up with $2,000 if faced with an emergency.” Thus, the corporate oligopoly has concentrated the wealth of the new economy to it’s founders, and the promise that the masses will be liberated to freelance and work on their own thanks to new digital technologies, is shown to be false, except for a fortunate few.


The Rise of Enormous Data

Think Big Data was too big too handle? Enter Enormous Data. Seriously. It’s the new buzzword in the industry.

Stay tuned for updates and I appreciate your comments and suggestions.

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