Machines vs people
In May 1997, one of the greatest minds in chess, Garry Kasparov, was decisively trounced by Deep Blue, an IBM computer capable of processing 200 million moves a second. It was the first time in history that an intelligent machine was able to surpass the mind of a grandmaster renowned for his brilliance and iron will.
After that humbling event, in another stunning display of brain power, an artificial intelligence named IBM-Watson (a question-answering computer system) easily won the $1 million first prize by beating top Jeopardy contenders in 2011. To do that, over 200 million pages of knowledge and language-based information, equivalent to four tetrabytes, had to be stored in Watson’s brain.
Breathtaking though these may be, there was still a “missing link,” a machine that could not only use superior logic at “brute force” level but also exceed the emotional, intuitive power of humans. That great leap forward occurred last year when AlphaGo, the artificial intelligence (AI) system created by Google subsidiary DeepMind, convincingly defeated three-time European Go champion Fan Hui in the Chinese game of Go, a game that combined logic and highly developed intuitive ability. Thus, in that astonishing victory in Paris on Jan. 27, 2016, man and machine became virtually one and indistinguishable in intelligence, albeit with the latter at the top.
To make things more unnerving, DeepMind introduced AlphaGo Zero this year, a radically new system that quickly gained the same skills as its parent with absolutely no human intervention: Its programmers simply gave it a blank board and the guidelines of the game. From this tabula rasa, it played millions of games against itself—without the aid of human data!
Those developments in the cyberworld flashed in my typewriter-era mind as the specter of automation-induced perfect storms headed for the shores of job markets throughout the world.
Many economists, now pessimistic about technological unemployment, accept that the so-called compensation effects of new technologies (i.e., new workers needed to service the machines) did largely operate up to the 19th and 20th century (when most machines were still relatively dumb). But the game-changer is the revolution in computerization and AI in today’s world that has rendered even highly skilled white-collar jobs obsolete, according to MIT scientist-economist Andrew McAffee. With higher productivity and return on investments brought about by state-of-the-art automation, he advised us to “expect the unexpected” in the years ahead.
Last week investment analyst John Mauldin said that in the United States, 23-44 percent of current work activity affecting 73 million people will be automated by 2030, with 48-54 million of them needing to change jobs completely. “The shift will affect almost all jobs to some degree.”
Thus, sooner or later in our interdependent global economy, the transformative automation trend in First World countries will have the same impact on the Second and Third Worlds. In this context, nimble, sophisticated robots that can perform delicate factory, medical, legal, accounting, designing, writing, and office work will be on the rise. And driverless cars, buses, trains, even jetliners without human pilots, are only years away in commercial application. The technology is already available, tested, and demonstrated in televised and open trial runs. It just needs political will and public acceptance.
As humanity braces for the coming age of “superhuman” machines, the inevitable chilling question is: At what point in their exponential development will the machines think they are truly superior to the humans who created them—and begin plotting to take over the entire world ?
Suddenly that grim scenario highlighted by the blockbuster “Terminator” movies or “Blade Runner,” which dramatized power struggles between humans and machines—with the fate of human civilization at stake—doesn’t seem so farfetched anymore.
Narciso Reyes Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an international book author and former diplomat. He lived in Beijing in 1978-81 as bureau chief of the Philippine News Agency.
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