For some reason, people love to be scared. People also love to spook other people, that gives them the sense of advantage, power. And in the hyper-stimulated era of social media and numerous dopamine shots per hour this dynamics takes on a completely new scale. It turns into a psychotic rumbling between complete and unquestionable excitement only to turn in minutes to fear mongering utter dystopia. This has been going on with Artificial Intelligence over the last decade and it became almost painfully absurd. Social media "influencers" ride this bipolar mania to their advantage while normal people are being fed completely unrealistic view of reality - both far too optimistic and ridiculously dystopian. Much like with food - put a load of sugar, and to balance it out throw a ton of salt and the thing tastes better. Is horrible for health but does taste better. In this blog for quite a few years now I was trying to smuggle in some healthy diet for a change. Call out the hype, discuss outstanding problems and possible solution. So let's dig in and digest some salad and veggies.
First of all, let's just not use the word A.I. A.I. is a terrible and biased term which is vague, not well defined, emotional and confusing. And that is probably why the fast-food industry of news mill loves it so much. In reality A.I. is just a bunch of computers or machines performing some task that previously were believed hard to automate. In essence a natural continuation of our everlasting desire as a civilization to improve our lives using machines. Sounds less scary already doesn't it?
We've been using machines to improve our productivity since the very origin of man kind and there is nothing wrong with it. However occasionally an automation breakthrough is made large enough to reorganize broader society, as in for example displace some workforce. This can get intimidating to the workforce being displaced but is typically quickly balanced out by a set of new opportunities and new professions and generally increased standard of living.
And here we come back to the psychosis we're in right now and particularly how I think most of it is really unjustified and wrong. Let's analyze a few cases of professions feared to be displaced, that IMHO have nothing to worry about and then dig into some professions that seem not to be worried at all that perhaps should be (or could be).
- Radiologist - a few years back in 2017 a hype bomb was detonated by a team lead by Andrew Ng, that they've accomplished results surpassing human performance on recognizing radiological images. Well first of all, one needs to be very, very careful on stating precisely what it means to surpass human capabilities. An excavator surpasses human capabilities in strength, but needs and operator. Later on numerous flaws were pointed out in the study and as it turns out A.I. really has a long way to go to become clinically applicable. Since then the radiologists example almost became the symbol of AI-misfire.
- Truck drivers - ever since the self driving craze started truck drives have been the primary target of approaching extinction from the fear mongering nonsense mill, spiked up occasionally by unfortunate statements by leading AI researchers. Obviously it hasn't happened. And I'm quite convinced it ain't going to happen any time soon. Much like I've stated numerous times before, modern-day AI actually sucks at getting around in physical environment and despite being able to drive thousands of miles on highways, autonomous vehicles tend to make absolutely unacceptable mistakes the moment the road situation requires any sort of higher level reasoning.
- Construction workers - aka Boston Dynamics robots will replace them. Boston dynamics is in reality a high budget Youtube channel or media company. Their robots are marvelous and completely clumsy and useless. They have no perception, all their sophisticated motions and pre-programmed and carefully rehearsed (which you can verify by watching their occasional "behind the scenes videos"). Saying that Boston dynamics robot is going to replace a worker is like saying that CNC machine is going to replace a mechanical engineers. It just simply doesn't make any sense. Their "consumer" grade robotic dog is $70k. Yes that is two average new cars for a toy that is essentially useless beyond creating fear-mongering content for youtube. So far every task I've seen these robots advertised for can be accomplished by much cheaper, dedicated bots or drones. I should mention here Tesla probably and the MuskBot, but I'm sorry their presentation was just simply a joke, so let's not even get into that.
- Airline pilots. Flying a plane seems like a boring task when everything goes to plan, but in reality most of modern-day flying large aircraft is continuous updating of emergency plan for a wide range of scenarios. Yes the plane flies itself for the most part, but pilots are still necessary for various hardware failures, unfavorable weather conditions and a myriad of other unforeseen situations. So in reality the job at a cockpit is actually quite intense. And in reality the marginal increase in cost efficiency by getting rid of pilots on a large aircraft is mostly negligible. So despite the fact that modern general aviation planes come with "auto land" features and very capable autopilots, it's going to be many, many years before any civilian airliner goes into regular service without pilots.
- Painters/artists. The raise of stable diffusion models have created another one of these hype/fear (sugar/salt) bombs in mid 2022, with the bold announcements that artists are now irrelevant. Of course this is not really the case at all. Yes the tool will replace some human work (I generated the featured image for this post using stable diffusion), just like cheap Ikea mass printed paintings replaced some that would be painted by real people. But of course there are still painters and there are still people paying the painters for real stuff. Similarly digital technology actually opened up tons of new ways of expression and created tons of jobs for artists. And same will be with text-to-image generation.
- Writers. Another hype/fear bomb hit at the end of 2022 with chatGPT. Chatbots are one of the favorite tools to spread AI hype and fear since of course the Turing test setup and the fact that humans are notoriously naive at attributing agency to a thing that communicates with them via written language. ChatGPT is the latest incarnation of that genre after numerous other, the most fames of which was probably Eliza. Chat GPT relies on the latest fashion in machine learning, namely the transformer networks which are trained to predict next word based on a range of proceeding text. Generally they produce remarkably "good" overall experience, really able to fool people quite well (though frankly a simple grammar based chat bots have no problems with that either, especially when equipped with some stochasticity). The problem with GPT though, as with many other AI contraptions, is that obviously it knows extremely little about the world. All the knowledge, all the relationships, conditional probabilities and so on it gets from text, such much like a blind person can never understand color, so does ChatGPT can not really understand the underlying semantics of the sentences it spits out. This can always be seen in the ways it fails and makes complete nonsense up, which happens very frequently. The current media MSG pill is that GPT will somehow replace writers for online magazines, with Buzzfeed being apparently the first one to announce that. Now that we know what Buzzfeed will replace their writers with, it's a great time to ponder what they will replace their readers with. In reality chat GPT is mostly nonsense producing machine. It cannot be relied upon for accuracy or logic. It confabulates non existing sources and makes up self contradictory statements. The only thing it will do, is it will make browsing the internet for information harder, as the amount of Search Engine Optimization content is about to explode. Most platforms are already full of manufactured content, ranging from product reviews, youtube videos, blog posts. It's almost hard to find anything created by a human in the first page or two of google search result. With GPT things are likely to get worse and likely very much worse. One thing remains clear though, GPT will not replace any real writer. If you have the sensitivity, originality and a skill to put your thoughts into writing, you have nothing to worry about.
- Software engineers. GPT can write code. This is somewhat exciting and in a sweet salty fast food news fashion the media and the tech bros interpreted that as the end of software engineering profession. So I asked it two write some code. And in all but the very rudimentary functions it was littered with bugs and in more than half of the cases wasn't even in the right vicinity. There might be some uses, e.g. GPT seems to be pretty decent at generating docstrings, but as with all these examples above "replacing software engineers" is a pipe dream hyperbole. It's worth recalling here that when four color theorem was solved in the late 70's using a computer, people were in similar fashion fearing that mathematicians are about to become irrelevant, and now, some 50 years later we can easily see how that ended.
Automation is obviously good and some of the professions above may be affected, as in the fancy computers can provide an additional tools and alter the daily tasks performed, but AI is in no position to replace creativity, originality, outside the box problem solving and most of all, reliable and robust control in physical reality. It still is just a tool, potentially useful tool in skilled hands but a tool nevertheless. So to finish this essay on a bit more positive note, here are some professions which in my opinion may actually get displaced with existing tech:
- Bureaucrat. This we could do today. An official interaction with a government office could and should be automated. There is absolutely no need to bother any human to accept a form, apply for passport, get permits.
- Tax accountant. This is a totally self imposed wound that we are fixing here. Simplification of tax code and a competent, government provided TurboTax-like service would essentially eliminate this entire industry. Not to mention we probably wouldn't need 1/3 of the IRS agents.
- Cashier. Another problem where boring and inefficient human labor can be replaced with automatic detection and assignment of products to customer. And unlike with automated driving, a system mistake is fixable and non critical.
- Bank clerk. Almost extinct in Europe already, but in the US there are still plenty people sitting in cozy bank cubes doing who knows what. The entire interaction with a bank could be entirely ran through an Internet application.
- Pharmacist. It is absolutely possible today to build a machine that will automatically dose and pack custom prescriptions. A drug consultation could be done remotely via a video call before releasing the product to the customer.
- Realtor. There is absolutely no need for a realtor, especially given their commissions. There are plenty countries where real-estate market is unregulated and relies on normal civil-law contracts between buyer and seller. You can still hire a real-estate agent if you don't want to deal with a listing or looking for a house you want, but you absolutely don't have to.
This list is not nearly as dramatic as the one pumped by hyper stimulated media machine. But unlike the sensationalist nonsense, this above could actually be done. Like literally today. If we came to agreement and did just a little bit tech development. We wouldn't need AGI. We wouldn't need quantum computers. We wouldn't even need super fast GPU's, super accurate LIDARS, nuclear fusion or blockchain. We would just need to come together, make some decisions and reorganize our affairs a little bit. But given our hype-polarized politics, ADHD media and a frantic, neurotic and psyched society, this ain't going to happen. We will just sugar rush ourselves with AI Elon Musk type hyper-promises, scare ourselves to the point of anxiety by the nonexistent AI daemons until we all slowly but surely go totally insane.
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