Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Player Piano, Singularity and the Future of Humanity

When I was in college a friend introduced me to the writings of Kurt Vonnegut. I remember that first book I read, Cat's Cradle,  blue paperback with white lettering. It was Vonnegut's fourth book and I found it simultaneously a breezy read and compelling. I soon sought out all the other books he'd written up to that time, one of which was his first novel Player Piano.

The reason I thought of Vonnegut this week and am writing about Player Piano is because of recent readings on artificial intelligence and robotics. Last week I completed Machines of Loving Grace:
The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots by John Markoff. This week I am in the midst of Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford. Both of these books raise issues about the relationship between computers, robots and people that should be of concern to us.

One of the foremost thinkers in this realm has been Ray Kurzweil, who in the mid-1980's wrote The Age of Intelligent Machines. Kurzweil, a futurist, predicted that a computer would beat a chess champion before the end of the century. And it did. But other things he's predicted are not as much fun to contemplate, because they involve possibilities that are generally reserved for science fiction. One of these is the rise of intelligent robots who become so smart they don't need programmers to make them smarter. They will make themselves smarter. The concept has been termed singularity.

In the film Ex Machina the word is uttered only once, but every computer geek knows what the word means. The Narcissistic robot-making genius is striving to make something so human it has a mind like a human, with constant capacity to learn more, and to teach itself. Wikipedia describes it in this manner:

The technological singularity is a hypothetical event in which artificial general intelligence (constituting, for example, intelligent computers, computer networks, or robots) would be capable of recursive self-improvement (progressively redesigning itself), or of autonomously building ever smarter and more powerful machines than itself, up to the point of a runaway effect—an intelligence explosion—that yields an intelligence surpassing all current human control or understanding. Because the capabilities of such a super-intelligence may be impossible for a human to comprehend, the technological singularity is the point beyond which events may become unpredictable or even unfathomable to human intelligence.

The books cited above and others like them all point to a future where machines will be increasing displacing jobs and people Rise of the Robots begins with automation that is already being tested to replace fast food jobs. All through the Sixties autoworkers resisted the machines that were displacing jobs in Detroit. Repetitive tasks may be boring, but they paying jobs. On the other hand the machines never get tired, never need breaks, and never go on strike. The helped the shareholders and upper management obtain revenue while disrupting families and workers' lives.

Today a new wave of machines is coming and it's going to disrupt even more lives as robots and automation replaces white collar workers's jobs. I believe that there will need to be a complete re-thinking of how people are compensated or we've got a seriously problematic and potentially hurtful future ahead. By hurtful I mean, it's impact on humanity.

Which brings us back to Vonnegut. Player Piano was Vonnegut's first novel. Published in 1952 it addresses the negative impact increased automation will have on our quality of life. Here's the beginning of an overview of the book, again from Wikipedia:

The story takes place in a near-future society that is almost totally mechanized, eliminating the need for human laborers. This widespread mechanization creates conflict between the wealthy upper class—the engineers and managers who keep society running—and the lower class, whose skills and purpose in society have been replaced by machines. The book uses irony and sentimentality, which were to become hallmarks developed further in Vonnegut's later works.

And further on from the same source:

Player Piano is set in the near future after a third world war. While most Americans were fighting overseas, the nation's managers and engineers faced a depleted work force and responded by developing ingenious automated systems that allowed the factories to operate with only a few workers. The novel begins ten years after the war, when most factory workers have been replaced by machines. The bifurcation of the population is represented by the division of Ilium into "The Homestead", where every person who is neither a manager nor an engineer lives, and the other side of the river, where all the engineers and managers live...

The automation of industry and the effect this has on society is predominant theme of Player Piano. It is "a novel about people and machines, and machines frequently got the best of it, as machines will." More specifically, it delves into a theme Vonnegut returns to, "a problem whose queasy horrors will eventually be made world-wide by the sophistication of machines. The problem is this: How to love people who have no use." Unlike much dystopian fiction, Player Piano's society was created by indifference, both of the populace and the technology that replaced it. As such, it is the sense of purposelessness of those living in a capitalistic society that has outgrown a need for them which must be rectified.

The message of Player Piano is that people need to have a sense of purpose, and that if you take that away from them their lives will be empty. Many books address this issue, but Vonnegut combines it with a unique perspective that is quite perspicacious. That it predicted such a bleak future while the U.S. was enjoying a sudden burst of prosperity and "happy times" with jobs a-plenty, sock hops and dance parties, a bowling explosion and the rest, well, not very many people were giving much thought to the future that all this technology was going to bring us.

But it was an article by Jon Evans in TechCrunch that really got my brain stimulated this week. His title is "We should be worried about job atomization, not job automation." In this piece Evans reminds us that automation of labor is not all that bad. Wouldn't it be great if no one ever had to clean a toilet again? Or had to do mind-numbing, back-breaking repetitive tasks? Evans writes, "I submit that the actual problem is that full-time jobs are assumed as the fundamental economic building blocks of our society, and that we lack the flexibility or imagination to consider, much less move towards, any alternative structure."

I really think this is the crux of the matter. For may of us who have grown up reading about dystopian futures, our feelings coincide with Woody Allen's statement about death. "I'n not afraid... I just don't want to be there when it happens."

But what if those dystopian visions were nothing more than vapor. As the saying goes, 98% of what we worry about never happens.

No one entirely knows what the future will bring, simply because the law of unintended consequences is always going to be at work. Nevertheless, I will submit this proposal for consideration. The technology will exist to feed and shelter everyone and it may be that machines replace untold numbers of jobs, but the only real bottleneck will be how to make sure everyone displaced has a decent quality of life. So, do our politicians have the political will to take the lead on this, to really and truly tackle this problem? That's the bottleneck that I see. So I propose we find a way to replace the politicians and let good-hearted robots run the country. What do you think?

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While preparing for this blog post I queried Google (an intelligent machine) and asked what he/she/it thought of Watson. Google led me to this article by Kurzweil on the significance of Watson. Something to think about.

Meantime, life goes on... all around you. Make the most of it.

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