A: 8, 2-chōme, Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku City, Tōkyō-to, Japan, B: Brooklyn, New York, United States
On December 29, 2013 The New York Times published an article by Michael Fitzpatrick on Japan's Todai Robot Project entitled "Computers Jump to the Head of the Class." This was the first article that I ever read that spelled out the potential dystopian impact of advances in artificial intelligence on traditional employment and also on education. Because the article was relatively brief I decided to quote it in full:
"TOKYO — If a computer could ace the entrance exam for a top university, what would that mean for mere mortals with average intellects? This is a question that has bothered Noriko Arai, a mathematics professor, ever since the notion entered her head three years ago.
“I wanted to get a clear image of how many of our intellectual activities will be replaced by machines. That is why I started the project: Can a Computer Enter Tokyo University? — the Todai Robot Project,” she said in a recent interview.
Tokyo University, known as Todai, is Japan’s best. Its exacting entry test requires years of cramming to pass and can defeat even the most erudite. Most current computers, trained in data crunching, fail to understand its natural language tasks altogether.
Ms. Arai has set researchers at Japan’s National Institute of Informatics, where she works, the task of developing a machine that can jump the lofty Todai bar by 2021.
If they succeed, she said, such a machine should be capable, with appropriate programming, of doing many — perhaps most — jobs now done by university graduates.
With the development of artificial intelligence, computers are starting to crack human skills like information summarization and language processing.
Given the exponential growth of computing power and advances in artificial intelligence, or A.I., programs, the Todai robot’s task, though daunting, is feasible, Ms. Arai says. So far her protégé, a desktop computer named Todai-kun, is excelling in math and history but needs more effort in reading comprehension.
There is a significant danger, Ms. Arai says, that the widespread adoption of artificial intelligence, if not well managed, could lead to a radical restructuring of economic activity and the job market, outpacing the ability of social and education systems to adjust.
Intelligent machines could be used to replace expensive human resources, potentially undermining the economic value of much vocational education, Ms. Arai said.
“Educational investment will not be attractive to those without unique skills,” she said. Graduates, she noted, need to earn a return on their investment in training: “But instead they will lose jobs, replaced by information simulation. They will stay uneducated.”
In such a scenario, high-salary jobs would remain for those equipped with problem-solving skills, she predicted. But many common tasks now done by college graduates might vanish.
“We do not know in which areas human beings outperform machines. That means we cannot prepare for the changes,” she said. “Even during the industrial revolution change was a lot slower.”
Over the next 10 to 20 years, “10 percent to 20 percent pushed out of work by A.I. will be a catastrophe,” she says. “I can’t begin to think what 50 percent would mean — way beyond a catastrophe and such numbers can’t be ruled out if A.I. performs well in the future.”
She is not alone in such an assessment. A recent study published by the Program on the Impacts of Future Technology, at Oxford University’s Oxford Martin School, predicted that nearly half of all jobs in the United States could be replaced by computers over the next two decades.
Some researchers disagree. Kazumasa Oguro, professor of economics at Hosei University in Tokyo, argues that smart machines should increase employment. “Most economists believe in the principle of comparative advantage,” he said. “Smart machines would help create 20 percent new white-collar jobs because they expand the economy. That’s comparative advantage.”
Others are less sanguine. Noriyuki Yanagawa, professor of economics at Tokyo University, says that Japan, with its large service sector, is particularly vulnerable.
“A.I. will change the labor demand drastically and quickly,” he said. “For many workers, adjusting to the drastic change will be extremely difficult.”
Smart machines will give companies “the opportunity to automate many tasks, redesign jobs, and do things never before possible even with the best human work forces,” according to a report this year by the business consulting firm McKinsey.
Advances in speech recognition, translation and pattern recognition threaten employment in the service sectors — call centers, marketing and sales — precisely the sectors that provide most jobs in developed economies. As if to confirm this shift from manpower to silicon power, corporate investment in the United States in equipment and software has never been higher, according to Andrew McAfee, the co-author of “Race Against the Machine” — a cautionary tale for the digitized economy.
Yet according to the technology market research firm Gartner, top business executives worldwide have not grasped the speed of digital change or its potential impact on the workplace. Gartner’s 2013 chief executive survey, published in April, found that 60 percent of executives surveyed dismissed as “‘futurist fantasy” the possibility that smart machines could displace many white-collar employees within 15 years.
“Most business and thought leaders underestimate the potential of smart machines to take over millions of middle-class jobs in the coming decades,” Kenneth Brant, research director at Gartner, told a conference in October: “Job destruction will happen at a faster pace, with machine-driven job elimination overwhelming the market’s ability to create valuable new ones.”
Optimists say this could lead to the ultimate elimination of work — an “Athens without the slaves” — and a possible boom for less vocational-style education. Mr. Brant’s hope is that such disruption might lead to a system where individuals are paid a citizen stipend and be free for education and self-realization.
“This optimistic scenario I call Homo Ludens, or ‘Man, the Player,’ because maybe we will not be the smartest thing on the planet after all,” he said. “Maybe our destiny is to create the smartest thing on the planet and use it to follow a course of self-actualization.”