Sunday, January 01, 2017

The coming age of AI: What is NOT inevitable

In a Backchannel post Steven Levy excerpts “the seven stages of robot replacement” from Kevin Kelly's book The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future, and briefly lays out the main thesis of the book, which is that AI-driven transformation is coming, whether we're ready for it or not. (Caveat, I have not read the book itself and cannot speak to what all it may or may not include.)

Artificial Intelligence is in the process of arriving, a process which began a few years ago and which is likely to take another few years or decades to play out, but that it will play out is inevitable, and that this will mean a degree of social and economic disruption is equally inevitable. What remains in question is how that arrival will effect everything else, which will be in no small part a function of the forces and specific decisions shaping the translation between machine perception and behavior.

If that translation is optimized for maximum profit for those funding the development, production, and marketing of these technologies, will it reflect concerns which don't rate as priorities for those who are their direct customers, those who buy and operate the machines, presumably hoping to optimize the profitability of their own businesses? These customers must operate in their respective markets, dependent on the demands of their own customers and the cooperation of other suppliers, each driven by their own interests. If their margins are thin, they may have no patience for machine behavior driven by what, for them, are secondary or tertiary concerns, which, in the context of agriculture, could very easily include soil health and erosion control, if catering to those concerns makes the difference between profit and loss in the current year.

AI and robotics could enable the scalability of ecologically sound practices in agriculture, but will they? There's more at play here than the inevitable march of technology. While the agricultural context is really only an example, it is one where concerns other than short-term profitability are all too likely to fail to make the cut as priorities. This would be less worrisome if those other concerns didn't also represent our best hope for halting the loss of biodiversity and soil fertility, for stemming the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and for improving human nutrition.

AI is inevitable, but the most desirable benefits from it are not, and it will take more than market forces to ensure they don't remain forever beyond reach.

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