There’s a lot of talk in the market these days about the need to keep “the human in the loop”. Analysts, journalists, “thinkers”, and now increasingly politicians, fill page after page of column inches saying that “technology can’t be simply for technology’s sake”. That the more technological our age becomes the more we humans will need the “human touch”. That humans are central to the automation and AI enabled future of work. That machine intelligence may match and surpass human intelligence but will never replace the power and beauty of “human spirit”.
We here at the CFoW have ourselves made many of these types of statement over the last few years. I’ve said some of them on camera myself not too long ago https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_GZoNekBOQ&t=1s
I have a confession to make though ...
I’m not sure those statements are really that true and/or are going to come to pass. I’m not sure they’re going to have any effect or impact on the march of the machines. I’m not sure that they are going to influence the trajectory of the “great story of our time” a single jot. I think they stem from a lot of very bright people knowing that in actuality the combination of unbelievably powerful cognitive computing capabilities and unbelievably powerful financial interests are going to render vast swathes of the population “surplus to requirements” in the course of the next few decades. I think they stem from sentinels on the borders of our collective Jungian unconscious sending messages to HQ/and anyone who will listen that man – Homo sapiens – should wake up and reassert its primacy in the face of an emerging “AI first” world.
These messages literally stem from the wish being the father to the thought.
In reality what is going to happen, is that man is increasingly going to have to reshape his role and contribution (and earning ability) around existing work that machines still can’t do. And innovate new work that is beyond the capabilities of existing machine intelligence. For example;
- In robotics dominated warehouses and fulfillment centers man is still needed to perform the “last inch” of manipulating a non-standard sized toy into a box or picking out a piece of rotten fruit from a grocery delivery.
- At an algorithm-centric hedge fund man is still needed to introduce “Black Swan” scenarios into trading models that a machine learning system could have no knowledge of.
This “around and beyond” (AaB) approach will become standard operating procedure in many businesses over the next few years. Many people will find well remunerated employment in this type of work.
But many won’t.
The reasons man will need to accommodate AaB are obvious. So obvious that the vast majority of people can’t see them. It’s the economics stupid ...
A truck costs between $80,000 and $120,000. A US truck driver earns about $40,000 per year.
The Tesla self-driving truck will cost between $150,000 an $180,000. No driver necessary.
You can see where this is (pardon the pun) going.
A trader costs between $300,000 and $30,000,000 per year. Even the smallest trading firm typically has at least 20 traders.
A ML trading program can be written for, frankly, who knows ... probably quite a lot. Probably cheaper than $3bn though. ($30m x 20 x 5 years).
A mortgage application processing team member in a mid-sized bank probably makes about $50,000 per year. There are probably 30 members of the team. There’s probably software that can already (or will be able to shortly) process those mortgage applications faster and more accurately – and cheaper – than running that small band of brothers.
It’s the economics stupid ... It’s a no-brainer.
If you were the owner of that trucking company what would you do?
If you were the founder of that hedge fund what would you do?
If you were the head of that mortgage team what would you do?
Say no to the machines? Declare yourselves a “people first company/fund/team”? Ignore the obvious return on investment staring you right in the face?
Well, good luck with that.
I think rather you – as a fully committed member of the occasionally enlightened bourgeoisie, with a mortgage to pay, tuition to fund, a German car lease to maintain – would do what millions of other people in your position have been doing since well before Adam Smith’s invisible hand starting moving the trade winds, and chose the cheaper, faster, and (hopefully) better option. That makes your company/fund/team more efficient, effective, and profitable. That throws people overboard. That leaves people behind. That sighs and says, “Sorry, man, it’s nothing personal. It’s business”.
Particularly if your main competitor was going full in on AI.
That is what I think is going to happen - our late stage-hyper-capitalist system is so capricious, so engrained, so powerful, so aggressive, so mercenary, so heartless, so all encompassing, that to imagine that it doesn’t leverage AI and automation to make even more mountains of money is simply to not understand what is going on in the real world today.
Until the rules of our market economy are changed – through the ballot box, the picket fence, the guillotine – brilliantly smart people will use even more brilliantly smart machines to make as much money as they can for themselves and for the interests they are responsible for. Not to do so would be corporate malpractice. If man is collateral damage, then so be it.
Will our market economy change as wishful thinking fades and realism sets in? Who knows? Your guess is as good as mine.
Marx famously said “the banker will sell the hangman the rope he is hanged with”.
Lots of brilliantly smart people using brilliantly smart machines to make brilliant amounts of money have read their Marx. Lots of them know that these “reverse Fordism” days (i.e. paying people less so they can buy less stuff) are unstainable. Some of them are issuing manifestos to tell their peers and pals that things have got to change. http://www.businessinsider.com/everyone-at-davos-is-talking-about-larry-finks-letter-to-ceos-2018-1
Perhaps my mea culpa of cynicism is too bleak, the result of simply too much time at 30,000 feet.
Perhaps wishful thinking is the root of action and change.
I really hope so.
But perhaps, the great story of our time is simply a re-run.
There for the Grace of God go we. Now, that’s a wishful thought.