I just finished The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity, and it was one hell of a read.
A lot of us are concerned about the coming of robots that arguably will be substantially smarter and more capable than we are. This book likely will make some feel a tad more comfortable about the future, because it points out in some detail that a lot of the blue-collar jobs that supposedly would be going to these metallic false humans won’t be.
On the other hand, a lot of the white color jobs we thought were safe — well, they probably won’t be around for long. Those of you who are in the fields where much of this coming effort is focused, like medicine — well, you are either screwed or you’re going to have an exciting time, depending on how much you like change.
I should point out that while there is a lot in this book that is impressively right, there also is a lot that is wrong. It showcases that the level of change we will be facing in the next decade or so will be so disruptive that no one, even the incredibly well-connected author of this book, Byron Reese, is going to be able to predict the future with much accuracy.
Yet this book lays a great foundation that will help you understand the changes that are coming, and understanding a change often goes a long way toward removing the fear surrounding it. It is survivable — and I agree with Reese’s point that there are stronger odds in favor of the future being far brighter than today than the other way around.
If widely read, books like this can become self-fulfilling prophecies. It can help ensure that bright future, which is one of the strongest reasons not only for reading it but also for getting your friends to read it.
I’ll share some ideas on how artificial intelligence will impact the future of your career, and then close with my product of the week: a really handy International WiFi service that substantially could reduce your connectivity costs when you travel overseas.
AI and Your Job
It is really interesting to me how perceptions surrounding which jobs are most at risk have changed over the last five years. When I first started seriously covering AI, the consensus appeared to be that smart robots would take the jobs of blue collar workers first.
The logic was that those jobs were relatively easy to perform, the workers often were problematic because they really didn’t enjoy their jobs, and, honestly, I think the folks making the predictions were biased in thinking the robots wouldn’t take their jobs.
The book does the best job I’ve seen so far with regard to coming up with a way to calculate job risk — and if you use the formula from the book, blue-collar employees are relatively safe. Since I want you to read the book, I won’t share the entire formula, but in summary it suggests that the more expensive the job, the more knowledge it requires, and the more people who do it, the more likely it is that the job will be done by a future AI. This is economics at work.
AIs are great with anything that has to do with data, but they aren’t good with breadth, particularly if there is a lot of random activity. The economics favor replacing highly paid workers at scale over low paid workers.
Looking the other way, the more variables you have, the closer to unique your skills are, and the less you make, the less likely it is that you will be replaced by an AI. For example, a radiologist is an ideal target for an AI while someone who repairs old clocks is not.
However, I should point out that the folks creating AIs often don’t use this type of mechanism to decide on the economics of the result. For instance, another job that the book suggests should be at low risk is actor.
You might remember that a few decades back there were commercials featuring John Wayne that went up long after John had gone to that great western movie in the sky. Old footage of other deceased actors was repurposed in other such commercial efforts as well.
Now there is a substantial ongoing effort to create digital actors with their own performance capabilities.
Another profession that shouldn’t be on the short list is truck drivers. The complexity of driving trucks in traffic is very high, truck drivers aren’t that expensive, and while there are a lot of them, they have a powerful union that will resist the effort. When you factor in the cost of replacing the truck, the change is relatively expensive.
However, the U.S. is short something like 50K truck drivers, and folks have been predicting that if we don’t fix this, it will drop the country into a recession. So, there has been a ton of effort expended to create autonomous trucks, because the need is so great. (Interestingly, this could be offset using immigrants — particularly given that the trucking companies are willing to fund training and living costs during the training because they are so desperate — but sadly, our government has been blind to that solution.)
This means that while the formula in the book can help you feel safe, you still need to maintain a high level of awareness of what is going on with AI research in your field, because the clear majority of folks building AIs clearly haven’t been using this formula.
16-Hour Work Week
One of the really interesting things the book points out is that we could have a 16-hour work week in the future. It also points out that the majority of us still would choose to work more than 40 hours instead, because we would want the stuff the extra hours give us.
I have a couple of neighbors who live this life today. They live on a far tighter budget than I do, but they spend most of their days biking, hiking, going to concerts, and generally playing. The offset is they can’t afford what I can, but they arguably have a far healthier life.
Author Reese points out that the basic rule is that every few decades the advancements are such that the living quality in all the classes moves up a range, and you can choose to work less and have the same lifestyle or work more and effectively have the lifestyle of the next higher class.
For instance, folks in the 1950s middle class mostly cooked their own food, and they didn’t have air conditioning or many of the luxuries we now take for granted. You likely could work 40 percent of the hours you now do and have that same lifestyle.
The lifestyle many now have — with cars, comforts and freedom — matches well with very wealthy in the 50s. Many people effectively have moved up a class without realizing it. Thirty or so years from now, the quality of your life working a 40-hour week likely will rival the rich of today — or you can cut the amount of work you do and have a lifestyle similar to what you have today.
You’ll likely choose to keep working hard because you’ll want that stuff. Granted, it likely will include using robotic maids, self-driving cars, and other automated solutions, but it will be like you have people taking care of your every need, like the rich do today.
Apparently, we are a tad greedy as a race and are more likely to trade off extra work for extra luxury, but I expect, many of us don’t realize we have a choice. Quality of life may be better than quantity of robots.
One of the big concerns is that we will end up in a dystopian future with robots killing us all off. I’m one of those who think that is a valid concern, largely for two reasons: 1) We often release new technology without fully vetting it; and 2) There is the small issue that governments around the world are creating AI weapons.
I was watching a video of a Russian robot firing weapons and it was so close to The Terminator that it was frightening (it fired automatic weapons and blew away every target).
The good news is that in the short term, these things require a lot of servicing. In The Fourth Age, Reese points out that during a Russian test of an AI robot the robot escaped and then ran out of power in the middle of the street, causing a traffic jam.
Fortunately, we haven’t yet been able to fix the power problem with these things — but should someone fix the battery problem, we could very well be screwed. As it happens, I cover batteries, and there is no breakthrough on the horizon that creates a robot that won’t run out of power… yet.
The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity is a must-read book for the summer. Byron Reese does an excellent job framing the issue, explaining the dynamics, and covering the current breadth of thought surrounding it.
What’s more important is that this book gives you a strong baseline for understanding AI, covering many of the unique efforts currently going on. Those unique efforts could put you at risk, so it is critical not only that you read the book but also that you keep track of AI developments in your field.
The good news is that jobs will come up to build these new robots, train them, and service them — possibly allowing you to survive the coming wave of the things.
One final thing: There is a ton of interesting information in the book that could allow you to dominate related discussions in the future. For instance, I didn’t realize that as a race, we couldn’t see most colors until relatively recently. Also, countries that were aggressive with robots lost fewer jobs than those that weren’t as aggressive. (The economies of scale moved the related business to the firms with the robots, and the related growth offset significantly the inherent job losses.)
Reading this book likely will ensure your future, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
I was traveling in Italy last week, and to address the very expensive data roaming charges I typically incur when I stream my TV programs overseas, I tried a new product called “iWiFiTravel. ”
This is a service that sends you a special 4G WiFi puck with a daily US$10 charge for data. You log into the site, specify your days of travel, specify your shipping speed (we were leaving in two days, so I chose overnight) and you get the device in the mail for your trip. After you return home, you mail the device back — much like a Netflix DVD — and you’re done.
The device worked flawlessly on the trip, and it was particularly useful for Netflix and Amazon Prime because the hotel WiFi sucked — as is typically the case in the U.S. — which caused my Amazon Fire TV to stop the program, forcing me to constantly restart it.
With iWiFiTravel, I was able to binge watch all of the Lost in Space reboot on this trip (decent show), which I wouldn’t have been able to do without it.
Prime was more problematic because Amazon could tell I was in Europe and many of the Prime programs aren’t licensed for Europe at the moment. This suggests that a nice option might be a built-in virtual private network.
Currently the service doesn’t cover Asia — that will come in August — but if you are going to Europe, the iWiFiTravel is a great way to get your programs (and do some work) without dropping a ton of cash.
Because this reasonably priced service made my evenings in Italy more enjoyable, and got me through Netflix’s Lost in Space, it’s my product of the week.