By Jacob Derin
The artificial intelligence behind Alpha Zero has just solved a biology problem so complex it has eluded scientists for half a century. Artificial intelligence research has progressed at an increasingly rapid pace in recent years, leading to both hope and concerns. As computers get better at doing our jobs for us, it makes sense to worry that we might become obsolete, but I think this fear is misplaced.
Humans aren’t going out of style any time soon.
To be sure, automation and better technology can and has put many people out of work. But it’s worth reflecting on the types of jobs that are becoming outdated. There is a certain profile for jobs ripe for automation. Repetitive and manual labor jobs are the easiest to automate because these are the kinds of things computers and robotics were designed to do.
But there are also jobs that computers are not very good at. One of them is the job I’m doing right now: writing. Even excellent natural language computer programs don’t really understand what they’re writing. No matter how good computers are likely to get, this isn’t going to change any time soon.
This applies to other kinds of cognitively complex jobs that require creativity. Law, medicine and computer programming itself aren’t going to be automated until there’s some revolution in computer science.
Computers don’t have what’s called “general intelligence.” On the one hand, computers are much better than us at doing rote tasks and complex calculations. But, they’re not very good at applying knowledge across a broad range of situations and figuring out how to approach problems.
Computers need detailed and precise instructions if they’re going to do anything. People can make do with more vague instructions. We can be told to “go pick up some milk” without having every step of the process explained to us in painstaking detail. Computers lack this ability.
There will be losers in the game of automation, and I think this highlights the need for a fundamental shift in how we think about education. The jobs of the future are the ones that require creative and loose, flexible thinking.
Higher education is going to be critical in that world. The United States education system is not what it used to be, and this is no time to neglect it.
Instead of seeing an increasingly automated world as a threat, we should see it as an opportunity. Even as the old jobs begin to disappear, this demand for creative, innovative thinking will take off. The wealth that the creation of Facebook, Amazon and Twitter has generated for our society proves the enormous potential that’s available.
If the success of the Alpha AIs has taught us anything, it’s that we can do incredible things if we harness this potential.
But, we need to make this investment now, because things are changing so rapidly. We need to retrain people who have lost their jobs to automation, invest in improving our education system and give people a chance to take advantage of it without the crushing financial burden of student debt. The federal government can and should be subsidizing higher education as much as possible.
Student loan debt has surpassed $1.5 trillion.
We need to be incentivizing people to take advantage of this critical resource, not punishing them for it. Otherwise we, as a nation, risk being left behind. This is an incredible opportunity, but one that we have to seize now or pay the penalty very soon.
Jacob Derin is a third-year English and Philosophy major at UC Davis.
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