Brace yourselves, Singularity is inevitable: Andrew McAfee

It’s not too hard to see a world where humans struggle to stay relevant as machines far outpace their intelligence and capabilities. This is what Andrew McAfee, research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of The Second Machine Age, discussed at the Gartner Symposium on the Gold Coast.

The move towards Singularity, as it’s referred to, emerged only a few years ago with IBM’s supercomputer, Watson, making fools out of profoundly knowledgeable human contestants on the game show Jeopardy!.

Google’s driverless cars, which are making their ways onto public roads, are also eliminating the need for a driver. And then there are the usual manual labour tasks done by robots in industries like manufacturing and mining.

All this, McAfee says, is enough to believe that Singularity is real and may well be our future. But what really could make a convincing case for this, is not only is development in artificial intelligence, autonomous and data driven systems advancing more quickly but also wages in medium-skilled jobs are slipping, according to data McAfee cited from the US Census Bureau of Labor Statistics (1953-2011).

“The median American household takes home less money now than it did in the late 1990's. That’s not a healthy trend. And more recently the red line has started to taper off as well. That’s just the line for raw job growth,” he said.

He also cited figures from the US Federal Reserve, showing middle class families are the ones who struggled the most in the job market during 2010-2013.

“Our economists back at MIT have been doing really thorough, very careful research to understand what’s going on. They came to a very stark conclusion. They said there are lots of potential factors here, but technology is the main one, because technology is substitute for what that classic middle class worker does. Clerical work, supervisory work – that good old fashion middle class labour.”

The other issue or future consequence of Singularity is as wages in medium-skilled jobs drop, highly skilled workers and business owners’ wages could rise – especially as machines can be exploited to work 24/7 without breaking any laws, making it attractive for capitalist-driven companies.

“There are two inputs to every productive process: there’s capital and there’s labour. If capital can do more and more, you need labour less and less.

“Technology creates a lot of wealthy people, think Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates – folks like that. But it also amplifies the superstar effect as well,” he said.

Read: Humans versus machines: Who will be employed in future?

However, McAfee said this is not all bad news – for highly skilled knowledge workers, that is. With machines taking on labour and even some knowledge jobs, future generations will be forced to take education more seriously and become high-level experts in their fields – with science, engineering and IT becoming ever-more relevant to develop, support and manage these machines.

But one thing is for sure, Singularity may not just be a sci-fi fantasy, he said. Even Google architect Andrew Ng managed to build the Commodity Off-The-Shelf High Performance Computing – a deep learning tool – using cheaper hardware, reducing the cost from US$1 million to US$20,000.

It’s even possible to program news articles to compose a well thought out story that is based on data, as Narrative Science did using clever algorithms, he said.

CIO Australia is following up with Andrew McAfee for more insight into a possible future of Singularity.

Rebecca Merrett flew to the Gartner Symposium as a guest of Gartner.


Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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