OPINION: The people’s choice — Artificial intelligence or practical wisdom

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Community Columnist, dr.michael.quigley@gmail.com

Almost daily we hear reports that our economic future over the next five to 20 years will be driven and transformed by artificial intelligence (AI). The prophets of technology predict that no aspect of personal or social life will remain unaffected. In a recent interview with Fox Business, Vivek Wadhwa cited a study conducted at Oxford University that estimated 47 percent of all jobs in the U.S. would be robotized, and this is a conservative estimate.

Automated trucks will be moving goods around the country. There will be Uber taxis and buses without drivers; supermarkets will be automated — robots pick goods from the shelves and deliver to an address. Healthcare personnel will monitor people through robots and cell phones. In a word, every profession will be affected. Immediate reaction from the proponents of AI is that all this is amazing, dramatic, cost-saving and no one can stop it.

Assuming that the anticipated job losses are roughly 50 percent of the workforce, and that there are 160 million people in the U.S. workforce as of January, 2018, we can anticipate a social loss of 80 million jobs between now and 2035. “We the People” need to look closely and critically at this impersonal empire of technology to anticipate the social consequences and ask ourselves: Is this what we really want?

When we consider this depiction of the future we see that the transformation has already started. Traditional corporations like Sears, J.C Penney, K-Mart and Macy’s are disappearing. Other corporate icons like GE, Ford and GM are having to re-invent themselves rapidly. The impact of companies like Amazon on shopping malls as well as small family businesses is dramatic. They simply cannot compete, and so downtown areas of many cities are being decimated and left with derelict real estate. The classic example is the city of Detroit.

Consider the impact of AI technology on higher education. Increasingly, students see the university simply as a place to train for a job. Many incur large loan debts in the process that take years to repay. If AI is as brutal as anticipated in destroying current jobs, today’s students will be left with high debts, loss of the work they have been trained to do, and then they face the need to re-train for a much smaller job market. They face the prospect of a very tenuous economic future.

There is an even greater destructive impact of technology on higher education. The university has for thousands of years been a place where young adults study the arts as well the sciences. It is a time for philosophy, theology, ethics, art and music; all of which play a role in the development of the mind, heart and will of each individual. Such education is an essential ingredient in creating healthy, moral societies. It is the essence of freedom and equality. It is the foundation of civilization and it is the meaning of “higher” in the term higher education.

But technology is neither a science nor an art. Derived from Greek origin the word “techne” simply means “how to” do something. It gives us the term technique or a skill. It tells us nothing about the reason why something should be built. It says nothing about the moral rightness or wrongness of the object. Yes, technology is derived from traditional sciences (chemistry, biology, physics and mathematics), but in our times the one “new” science governing the direction of technology is economics. If it is technically possible to build a new machine like a robot and there is a profitable outcome from doing so then this principle alone justifies the technology; not the common good of society. Money remains the root of all evil when economics consumes the arts and sciences.

The economic principle inherent in a capitalist society is whether or not the application of the technology makes profit for the inventors, the owners of the corporation financing the development of the technology, along with their investors. This becomes the sole principle of decision-making. And once financial success is achieved, the appetite of personal greed surfaces (in the absence of any “higher” principles) to ensure that self-limitation. Any commitment to the common good is silenced.

What is beyond consideration is the impact the technology will have on “us the people,” the families that will be disrupted, the jobs that will be lost forever, the destruction of the social fabric in our cities and neighborhoods, the psychological impact on millions of people compelled to look forward to adult life with little or no hope of achieving the expected milestones of human achievement: reliable work, a living wage, long-term relationships, self-respect, etc. With the disruption of healthy human expectations come despair, addictions, drug abuse, crime and social decay.

The meaning of human work is the ability to develop one’s God-given talents and use personal creativity in the building of sustainable communities. If we were wise we would recognize that unlocking the inherent talents of every individual and planning for human talent to work in cooperation with other people in producing social goods is the essence of achieving peace in this world at local and national levels. Sadly, there can be no such wisdom without real education in the arts as well as the sciences.

The myopic world of technocracy is dependent on having to produce an endless line of innovation soon after the creation of the last. The gasoline engine must give way to the electric generator. Self-driven autos must replace the driven automobile. The flip-phone is redundant because of the folding smartphone. Today’s drivers of technological innovation do not ask themselves first of all: what do people need to improve the quality of their lives? Their first thought is how can what has been fabricated be made more profitable with the largest market possible. There is no longer such a thing as appropriate technology.

The weakness of the technological mindset is that it fails to see that nearly 70 percent of today’s economy is driven by the consumer. If technology eliminates 50 percent of jobs in the U.S. that means 80 million more people are not working, not spending and buying, not paying taxes, not paying into Social Security and Medicare. All this is added to the existing burden of $46 trillion of national debt, corporate debt and personal debt.

As Albert Einstein remarked years ago: “It has become appallingly obvious that technology has exceeded our humanity.” 

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