The world is full of people who think that we are all destined to lose our jobs – and perhaps even our very existence – to AI and robots. Depending on who you talk to, this future Techno-calypse will follow one of two possible paths:
The bots will become sentient and devise our destruction to preserve the world’s resources for themselves. In other words, it will roughly follow the plot of the film Terminator.
Technology will advance until our ability to distinguish between humans and our machine servants will disappear. They will take over our culture and take our jobs – punctuated with periodic homicidal malfunctions – leaving us in a crowded, dystopian malaise where we all wonder if that perfect date was just a bit too perfect. You know … Blade Runner.
This doesn't keep me up nights. I think that these would-be futurists watch too many sci-fi movies.
Are you listening Elon Musk?
Make no mistake, I believe that robots and automation are going to create economic disruption. I just have a more optimistic attitude toward the whole thing and I think that you should too.
Especially if you create things. My thesis is simple.
Technology Is Easy … Creativity Is Hard
The Blues Brothers movie – the original, which is the only one worth watching – is one of my favorites of all time. Some people think that it's a comedy. Sure … technically it is. But it's really a love letter to an era of music and style: Rhythm and Blues – R&B – and Soul.
You simply can’t make a film like that without Aretha Franklin – she is, after all, the Queen of Soul. She never had the best pure voice in the business. But man-oh-man she’s the whole package musically.
But there was a problem. Aretha can’t lip-sync.
In fact, it has been said Aretha never sang a song the same way twice. I believe that. She was always singing from her heart in the moment. That's part of what made her so great. But when you're making a film, you’ve got to lip-sync to a high quality prerecorded track so it looks right on camera. That’s just the way it’s done.
Aretha couldn’t do it … God bless her … and I mean that.
Go back and watch that film again and notice how she keeps turning away from the camera and shaking her head as the cameraman jockeys for positions that don’t let you read her lips. You can still tell, but they did the best that they could.
The whole concept of Jazz as an art form is one of improvisation and genius-errors that turn out to not be errors after all because somehow – in a way that no one fully understands – the imperfection has made the music better. But I digress.
Computer Automation Is the Opposite of Aretha Franklin
The whole point of computers is to do the same thing over and over and over and over again in exactly the same way while eliminating errors. It serves us best on tasks that are repeated many many times without alteration … without soul.
That’s OK … we have a HUGE need for machines to do that kind of thing for us. And we have more than five thousand years of recorded human history showing us exactly that over time. Including TONS of mind-numbing and repetitive but existentially critical tasks that we modern humans just can’t relate to any more – getting water, harvesting grain, and weaving cloth.
Your great grandfather would have risked displacement by new, automated machines that printed ink, stamped parts, and shoveled coal.
Your father might have been displaced by automated machines that did spot-welding, cast porcelain bathroom fixtures, cut optimized window glass, mixed pigments, or laser-imaged silicon chips.
I am not implying that anyone liked it at the time.
The Algorithm of Humanity
Aside from a few bone fragments, the ancient history of mankind is understood by the things that we have created from nothing into something – tools, bits of pottery, structural foundations ... art.
Indeed, there is one thing that humans need repeated over and over again that machines simply cannot do – the creation of new things. Since the dawn of humanity, we have done this. We can see it in the images of man and beast that haunt us as ochre-colored ghosts pressing out from Neolithic walls ... old beyond our concept of time.
This is where all of my coding friends start to yell at me in email and send me Tweets telling me how wrong I am. But I think that I can prove it.
The Proof Is in the Programming
I create TONS of content. I have a formal education in communication, economics, and the social sciences – coupled with a few decades of experience in the game and a natural impulse to write. I am writing this article because I got inspired while creating totally different content for one of my customers.
Stop and think about that for a moment. I have all my paying assignments, but something in what I was creating for another purpose inspired me. I stopped ... developed an idea, and wrote something fresh from my perspective. No one asked me to do it. Some may even wish I hadn't because they disagree with my opinions. I am improvising ... it's like "thought Jazz."
I bring to this task all of my reading, knowledge of human nature, experience within the culture of humanity, and my exposure to the work and art of a thousand geniuses and giants who came before me. Not to mention more than a dozen movie and literary references in this case. And it has my unique stamp on it ... a style and flow. Who else could have written this piece the way I wrote it?
Cogito ergo scriptum (I think; therefore I write).
I am violating my programming and creating more of something not requested and certainly outside of specification. I have done it before and I will do it again. Over and over and over again. In a way, this creative process actually is a form of programming. It is the software of the human mind and culture deployed with an impractical impulse against an as-yet undefined need. It is the human algorithm.
Not only that, but coming up with new, engaging creative content and art is hard. It takes TONS of time and effort to make something of even half-way decent quality. And these days, criticism and derision can be applied at the speed of light, so a bit of courage helps too.
That's why there are so many folks out there stealing and copying content. But more importantly, that's why my customers pay me to do it. And most of my customers are super-smart computer guys. If I could be automated in any real, effective, meaningful way, they'd probably have already done that by now.
I hope this doesn't give them any ideas.
Turns out life, art, and humanity are more complicated than the twisted plots of any Philip K. Dick novel. Which brings us back to ....
The Real Lesson of Blade Runner
Yes … writing computer code can be a satisfying and creative act. And yes … machine learning is an important development. But “machine learning” is really just a form of self-adjustment. We’ve had self-adjusting mechanical machines for more than one hundred years.
It's about time that the computers got off their lazy silicon chips and started fixing a few of their own mundane issues if you ask me.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)? There’s no such thing. What folks call AI is the combined creative work of thousands of computer engineers working for untold millions of man-hours to write a series of instructions that our machines can use to be faster and more efficient – updating their own database, tweaking settings, flagging interactions, and correcting errors in real time.
I can hear them now ...
"But, but, but …. Now we have chat bots, voice and face recognition, and ... crap! What’s the name of that stupid buffering icon from IBM with a voice like Hal from Space Odyssey. You know … the fake computer thingy that cheated on Jeopardy … Watson! Right … what about all those things Mr. Smartypants?"
Well, so long as we are taking our life-lessons from sci-fi movies, remember that – even in Blade Runner – you could always tell the difference between a "real person" and a “replicant” eventually.
Tell the technologists to get back to me when they’ve bottled Aretha Franklin. Creativity, invention, soul – they’re just too hard for the machines. Even they need us for that.
No Magic in the Machine
That’s it. No magic. No strange moment of awakening sinister sentience housed within a gleaming chrome skeleton. No All-Spark cube breathing life into transforming automobiles and soda machines. No malevolent Architect within the Matrix calculating human probability ... unless you count Mark Zuckerberg, who by all reports is still mostly human.
I’m not naive. I know the risks. But I also know the incredibly LONG history of mankind compared to what each of us experiences in a single life. The current state of technology is just our next iteration of technological advancement ... with all the good and bad that these revolutions bring.
But here’s the rub ….
The Real Sinister Intelligence Is "HI"
If technology does set out to harm mankind at some point – physically, like in the sci-fi movies or virtually by stealing our privacy, free speech, and bits of our humanity – it will be because a human wrote the code for them to do it. Artificial Intelligence won't write that code, Human Intelligence (HI) will. In our technological tale, Pinocchio never really becomes a “real boy” … there’s always someone pulling the strings to make him dance.
Just imagine ... a weaponized Pinocchio. That’s what should be keeping you up at night.
Thanks for reading!
Image of Artha Franklin – again, God bless her – credit The Blues Brothers and Universal Pictures.
Image of the replicants Roy and Pris from the Blade Runner movie, credit that movie and Water Bros Pictures.
Yes ... IBM says that their Watson AI computing system won on the TV game show Jeopardy. Sales gimmick! In order to win, the coders had to tweak the system to – in my opinion – cheat. Ask me about that if you want because I can back up my claim.