The last meeting of Science Café Cleveland had as its presenter Wyatt Newman, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, who gave a fascinating presentation on the state of Deep Learning, the term given by the Artificial Intelligence community to the next stage of AI development, where machines learn to identify things and make decisions for novel situations that they have not been previously programed to deal with. It is this feature, for example, that enables self-driving vehicles to identify the various things it encounters on roads and take appropriate actions.
He spoke about the dramatic advances that have been made based on our better understanding of how neural networks work in animal brains and the increasing power of processors to store huge databases and analyze that information and generalize from it. While we already know that machines are far better than humans at doing rote tasks, he said that there is no doubt that machines will be increasingly able to do cognitive tasks that we think are reserved for human intelligence, better than humans can. It is only a matter of time. One big advantage that machines have is that, unlike humans where each person has to learn anew what their ancestors knew, with machines that knowledge can be transferred intact to new machines with no loss.
There was of course the question of what would happen to all the people displaced by machines. He said that the new AI technology in undoubtedly going to cause great disruptions in society but the precise form it would take is less predictable. For example, with the advent of ATMs in banks, people feared the loss of bank jobs due to tellers being replaced. In reality, bank employment increased, it was just that new kinds of work emerged that were not as routine.
Another frequently quoted case is long haul truck drivers. He said that driving long distances on highways is the kind of low-hanging fruit that self-driving vehicles would first replace. He said that currently in the US, these drivers are limited to 10 hours driving per day. Even this is really too much because doing so day after day takes a real toll on drivers. It is too grueling for most drivers and most truck accidents are caused by either driver boredom or falling asleep or distractions. Automated trucks would be safer on the highways. But it would be advisable to have human drivers waiting at the highway exits when the trucks get close their destination, to take over and navigate busy city streets. It would like harbor pilots who are well aware of the local situation taking over from a ship’s captain when the ship enters port. So a new set-up would have to be created to take drivers to exits to meet trucks and to take them home from the exits once they release the trucks for the next trip on the highway. The advantage for truck drivers playing this new role would be that they would be driving for shorter periods and would now be always working close to home, like most other jobs, instead of the present situation where they are away for weeks at a time.
In addition, with self-driving trucks, they would not be idle for the 14 hours per day that the law requires their drivers to rest. Hence they could be on the road much more and so even with the same number of trucks, there would actually be more trucks arriving at and leaving exits and requiring human drivers to take over. So the overall impact on the number of truck driving jobs is not clear although the nature of the jobs will definitely change.
But what is clear is that these advanced robots are definitely in our future and going to have a major impact on our lives at work and at home and we have to brace ourselves to mitigate the adverse effects of the changes.