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UK government’s AI experts predict employment apocalypse

Thu 14 Jan 2016

According to Mary Wakefield in The Spectator, the UK government gathered together four experts in artificial intelligence last autumn in a subdued hearing with few journalists in attendance, to hear leading minds prognosticate on what the advent of new technologies in AI might mean for the short-term and long-term future of the country.

The piece records that each of the unnamed experts provided testimony regarding the implications for society and the economy of AI-based economic and technological solutions – and cautious voices were apparently thin on the ground.

The authority that predicted furthest into the future spoke of a ‘singularity’ – the moment at which artificial intelligence becomes meaningfully able to evolve and propagate in the manner of a Von Neumann machine. Recursively adaptive and capable of developing new directives instead of just following them.

Upon being asked what measures could be taken against the classic sci-fi canard of the upstart AI deciding that its makers are inferior to itself, the speaker turned the question back to the audience and recommended that it was one worthy of serious consideration.

Another attendee advised that within five years vast tranches of employment would likely be laid waste by automation and AI, mainly blue-collar occupations and casual roles such as van-driving, post-sorting and various iterations of cleaning. The source spoke of this future in the same Utopian tone adopted by H.G. Wells in The Shape Of Things To Come, as ‘a freeing of the toiling masses from manual labour’.

Further predictions at the autumn meeting included the advent of robot trucks, leading to a massive reduction in the 90 per cent of fatal accidents caused by human error in this sector of transport. And, as the article observes, such a sharp reduction in the secondary economies that human-guided transport supports (particularly in America, such as highway catering) are likely to lead, together with significant reductions in insurance premiums, to levels of disoccupation which favour Darwin far over Orwell.

Wakefield cites other AI experts subsequent to the meeting who advised her that the pending co-opting of labour by machines represents an exciting new opportunity for the ‘liberated’ to ‘explore their creativity’. Subsequently she laments the astonishing naiveté involved in imagining that a disenfranchised workforce will be outfitted in togae and allowed to explore their spirituality in an economic climate which has become so brutally utilitarian since 2009 as to have become Mr. Gradgrind’s New World – without any Dickens to satirise him in his revenant splendour.

The only further comment one can make on Wakefield’s interesting if depressing take on AI-driven mechanisation, is that the politics of the source publication are quite ironic, considering the subject at hand.

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