When technology takes over jobs

HARARE - The old photographer, with an incredible little mop of fringe, grey-white hair around his balding, mottled scalp sits solo on a bench in the vast Harare Gardens Park.

He has the resigned look of one who knows that at his age life has stopped giving and only takes away.

But the rate at which life has been taking away even his profession of over four decades has been merciless and brutal.

“Photography does not pay any more these days. These new technologies have taken our professions away,” he says, referring to how new technological advancements have ruined his otherwise lucrative photography career.

“You don’t see as many clients these days as we would before the advent of smart phones. See what they are doing over there,” he says grimly, pointing his wrinkled old finger which has clicked the camera button countless times at a youthful pair of lovers as they took selfies of themselves as they cuddled right under his noses.

And he cannot do anything about it either.

The word selfie was added to the English dictionary not long ago to accommodate a cell phone based technological invention which allows someone to take a perfect photograph of him or herself.

The 66-year-old photographer, John Mawire, is one of the world’s multitudes watching in awe and balking at the tremendous charge of technology.

In this age of Artificial Intelligence (AI), people are trembling at the prospect of technology taking over roles played by human beings in society.

And now, more than ever, that prospect is becoming a terrifying reality.

If technology experts are to be believed, AI has the potential to transform the world, but those same experts don’t agree on what kind of effect that transformation will have on the average person.

AI is software built to learn or solve problems — processes typically performed in the human brain. Digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, along with Tesla’s Autopilot, are all powered by AI. Some forms of AI can even create visual art or write songs.

Some believe that humans will be much better off in the hands of advanced AI systems, while others think it will lead to our inevitable downfall.

How could a single technological advancement evoke such vastly different responses from people within the very technology community?

Everybody seems to be fascinated with “the future” these days.

This is hardly surprising. After all, technology is developing at an amazing rate and the resulting social changes leave humanity feeling both excited and scared.

So far, advances in technology have played a major role in making the world a healthier, safer and more connected place.

But will this trend continue or has it reached its limits in an increasingly AI world?

Technology expert Robert Ndlovu said while technology is proving to be helpful and beneficial in many senses, there was now a realistic danger that humanity may be facing the biggest threat to its existence yet; thanks to their own creations.

“Technology is helping the next generation to give control back to people. It helps us to be more creative and less subordinate to social, political and corporate hierarchies. That’s not to say that there are no issues with these breakthrough technologies.

“Disruptive new technologies have already led to profound cultural shifts in attitudes towards consumption, work, education, energy and health. And the final story that I tend to see is that new technologies will make the next generation too smart for their own good,” he says.

But while Ndlovu believes that the raging technological wild beast can be tamed, another ICT expert, Chris Chikombe, warns that the speed of technological advancement is far outpacing humanity.

For him, the end of this story is the new challenges and uncertainties that such an encounter would create.

“The footprint of humanity will extend far beyond the solar system and we will project outwards into space. As a result, we will encounter other life-forms or extra-terrestrial dangers.

“No matter how you look at it, the future generation is lost. Technological developments are going too far, too fast. Humanity is losing control over itself and ? —? however it pans out ?—? the endgame doesn’t appear to be good,” he says.

What is most terrifying is the rate at which AI inventions are taking over the roles of human beings.

During the last few years, the rise of AI has been truly astounding.

From highly sophisticated robots and driverless cars, to a wide range of under the bonnet techniques that use AI, the market in AI is predicted to explode.

According to a new report from globally acclaimed market research firm Tractica, it (AI) is likely to grow from $643, 7 million at the present time, to $36 billion by 2025.

This represents a 57-fold increase over that time period, spanning just seven years.

Other projections are even suggesting higher trajectories.

According to a paper from the McKinsey Global Institute Study reported by Forbes, in 2016 alone, between $8 billion and $12 billion was invested in the development of AI worldwide. A report from analysts with Goldstein Research predicts that, by 2023, AI will be a $14 billion industry. Yet scientists warn that this is only the beginning.

What will the AI bring us in the future? What are the implications?

There is a question that AI has the potential to be revolutionary. Automation, for example, could transform the way people work by replacing humans with machines and software. Further developments in the area of self-driving cars are poised to make driving a thing of the past.

AI shopping assistants could even change the way we shop. Humans have always controlled these aspects of human lives, so it makes sense to be a bit wary of letting an artificial system take over.

According to South African-based Zimbabwean journalist-cum ICT enthusiast who is involved in virtual reality, in the short term — the next 5-15 years — AI and robotics is likely to transform the workplace, making huge numbers of human jobs redundant.

“Robots don’t get paid, don’t get tired, and don’t demand better working conditions. This means that there are millions of robots likely to take the place of factory workers in the future. For example, Foxconn, a company that assembles Apple iPhone parts, is replacing 60 000 workers with robots.

“These are very different to the dumb robots that have been used in car plants to perform repetitive single task activities. They are more mobile, flexible, and capable of more general multiple tasking,” he said.

With robotics predicted to rapidly improve in the next decade, these changes will hit millions of workers very hard, with some analysts forecasting 30 percent global job losses in the over the next 15 years.

Of course, there will be jobs created but it will still lead to massive disruption because businesses will always seek efficient ways of working.

The huge sums of money now spent on AI investment and research makes this outcome inevitable — politicians will come under much pressure to find ways to mitigate these effects before it happens.

While these investments in AI by mass production conglomerates such as BMW, Apple and Toyota look scares the working class, governments are also quacking at the dawning reality of AI driven revenue loss.

Human beings at workplaces pay taxes such as Pay As You Earn, make pension contributions and even use their wages to shop and thus earn governments money in the various taxes involved.

All that is being lost and the question is: Should robots be also taxed?

While the question appears remote in the Zimbabwean context due to the fact that the country is too slow to embrace certain technologies, the reality is that they are on their way and it is better to prepare.

The idea of a tax on robots was raised last May 2017 in a draft report to the European parliament prepared by MP Mady Delvaux from the committee on legal affairs.

Emphasising how robots could boost inequality, the report proposed that there might be a “need to introduce corporate reporting requirements on the extent and proportion of the contribution of robotics and AI to the economic results of a company for the purpose of taxation and social security contributions”.

It would be interesting to note that one of the world’s most passionate AI enthusiasts, Bill Gates is of the idea of taxing robots.

“If the robots are coming for our jobs, make sure they pay their taxes,” he told the Forbes Magazine in January this year.

Critics of a robot tax have emphasised that the ambiguity of the term “robot” makes defining the tax base difficult. The critics also stress the new robotics’ enormous, undeniable benefits to productivity growth.

Others believe that governments should tax companies’ use of them, as a way to at least temporarily slow the spread of automation and to fund other types of employment.

“Certainly, there will be taxes that relate to automation. Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50 000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we would tax the robot at a similar level,” suggested sociologist and researcher, Admire Mare.

Games provide a useful window into understanding the increasing the dangers of sophistication of AI.

A case in point, developers such as Google’s DeepMind and Elon Musk’s OpenAI have been using games to teach AI systems how to learn.

So far, these systems have bested the world’s greatest players of the ancient strategy game Go, and even more complex games like Super Smash Bros and DOTA 2.

“On the surface, these victories may sound incremental and minor — AI that can play Go can’t navigate a self-driving car, after all. But on a deeper level, these developments are indicative of the more sophisticated AI systems of the future. Through these games, AI become capable of complex decision-making that could one day translate into real-world tasks.

“Software that can play infinitely complex games like Starcraft, could, with a lot more research and development, autonomously perform surgeries or process multi-step voice commands,” said Ndlovu.

When this happens, AI will become incredibly sophisticated, and this is where the worrying starts.

One possible suggestion, according to some, is that AI is going to generate massive wealth, so the tax receipts could be used to create a “universal income” for all citizens of working age.

In the medium term, we will have to get used to machines playing a much greater part in our lives through sharing the roads with driverless cars until the day comes when human drivers are an extinct species.

There will also be robots, seemingly ubiquitous, performing all sorts of general tasks reliably.

Human-AI relationships will develop as simulated personalities become more convincing and intelligent devices communicate with us in natural language similar to conversing with humans.

There will inevitably, be many other examples of advanced AI that will become commonplace because machine intelligence systems will find uses in many applications.

But there won’t be space for people like Mawire, the old photographer who keeps reminiscing the good old days.

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