Thursday 22 March 2012

Augmenting Man

"The combination of machines and ICT has brought exponential development into the engineering world. As a result we see the emergence of autonomous machines. The complexity of tasks as well as the complexity of environments where these machines can work is steadily increasing. We can build cars that can navigate autonomously through city traffic finding destinations without any human intervention. Therefore, it is fair to say that machines have, on a functional level, already reached cognitive abilities comparable to horses or dogs. But this is not the end of development. Soon there will be no type of manual labor in which machines will not outperform humans. This is technically already true today. Currently, machines are merely held back by economic and societal constraints. The weakest of these constraints is the cost of hardware. Moore’s Law guarantees that computing power that today can only be found in supercomputers will be available in pocket sized devices in little a more than a decade. Some other constraints are more difficult to overcome. The more powerful and more complex a machine is, the more damage it can potentially create. This is the reason there are no self-steering cars on the roads yet. We have suggested a path of best practices and ethics to improve machines and reduce intentionally malicious behavior. Nevertheless, even those best practices leave us with a residual risk. This residual risk is not necessarily small. It may indeed be so large that certain types of machines will not be able to enter the market because of liability concerns. This limitation will only be overcome by the creation of an ultimate machine. For human parents responsibility and liability for a child ends with it becoming an adult. Similarly a machine can become an ultimate machine by emancipating itself from its manufacturer/owner and indeed becoming a distinct legal or even social entity. Interestingly, this can be done by creating a legal construct around this ultimate machine that in itself has economical value.

Nevertheless, the big question remains: how will our societies hold up to this rapid change? For example, currently our entire tax and social system, indeed most of our culture, is centered on the concept of work as the means of creating one’s livelihood. For example, the European Union has set a goal of increasing the part of the population (between 15 and 64 years of age) in gainful employment to 70 per cent up to 2010. Yet when machines are able to perform manual labor cheaper and more efficiently than humans, what jobs will remain? Former US Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, assumes that manual labor will eventually be replaced completely by machines. Nevertheless he argues that there will still be a high demand for a human work force. These new workers will have to be highly educated and trained “symbolic analysts” – lawyers, doctors, journalists, consultants, and the like – which create value beyond mere manufacturing. However currently only a fraction of the labor force is capable of performing these jobs. Even though goverments have stated their intention to increase investment in education it is questionable whether this goal can be achieved for everyone. And even if it were possible, the advancement in information technology is not restricted to manual labor. Machines have augmented the physical performance of man to the point were he becomes superfluos. The same augmentation is also taking place with our cognitive abilities. The famous quote of the computer being a “bicycle for the mind” becomes evident when we consider the vast amount of data a single person can analyze with the help of a personal computer. Therefore, the observation that machines in the long run are not destroying jobs but creating new ones is merely that; an observation and not a law. There might well be a threshold of automation that changes the rules of the game entirely. If that should happen this would be one aspect in which we have to change our culture radically. In any case, how well we are prepared for these new machines will determin the social acceptance and ultimately the cost of the transition. Since development is still gradual, there will be several years left to create new practises. There is likely not a simple nor a single answer. The convergence of disciplines and the accelerating speed of technological progress will require a holistic approach and result in ad-hoc solutions. Fortunately, we can start learning about the problem and its solutions already today. After all, the future is already here, just not equally distributed."

William Brace, Anniina Huttunen, Vesa Kantola, Jakke Kulovesi, Lorenz Lechner, Kari Silvennoinen and Jukka Manner,
"Augmenting Man,"
in Bit Bang, Rays to the Future, Yrjö Neuvo and Sami Ylönen, Helsinki: Helsinki University Print, 2009, p. 236-263

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