The Accelerating Impacts of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics on Human Societies

The Artificial Intelligence Contagion contains numerous analyses and extensive research notes about how AI/Robotics is interacting with, triggering, and affecting the human world.  This includes work, economic activity, wealth distribution and inequality, resource sufficiency, health care and addictions, homelessness, financial uncertainty, invasions of privacy, and surveillance systems that are expanding the power of governments to control their populations.  And these challenges are only a part of what is taking place.

A core part of the message in Contagion is that the changes are accelerating. Nonetheless, at the level of individual awareness, those not directly affected by the AI, machine learning, and other automation developments may perceive only tangential changes – some of them positive such as Alexa or Siri getting better at recognizing voices, facial recognition making it easier to board an airplane, on-line shopping and scanning. But at the macro level the challenges presented by snowballing technological developments are coming upon us with increasing speed, pervasiveness, and power. 

We are poorly prepared to anticipate, mitigate and respond to what is occurring.  Our leaders and populations lack the grounding necessary to understand the nature of the ongoing transformation.  Nor do they seem able to figure out what to do about the incredible challenges of AI/robotics by means of solutions that can buffer the worst of the impacts.  Such concerns are at the heart of Contagion.

Over the next several weeks we will post annotated material that appeared in published articles and reports just during the month of May 2019 on issues such as jobs, homelessness, technological developments in AI/robotics, privacy and surveillance, economic impacts and trends.  The point is to reinforce our awareness of the speed of the developments and the certainty of the impacts.  Even though Contagion contains almost 900 endnotes, they reflect the AI/robotics developments between 2013 and 2018.  It is vital we understand that the effects of Artificial Intelligence and the evolution of linked robotic systems is an accelerating phenomenon that is likely to impact our social and economic systems even more rapidly than predicted by many experts.

It is unlikely that we possess the wisdom and the will to resist short-term complacency regarding the extraordinary challenges posed by AI and automation.  But if we fail to do so, we face a situation far worse than climate change or terrorism.  If we fail, the potential long-term impacts threaten social disintegration and collapse, expansion of intensely authoritarian and repressive political systems (including in the Western democracies), rising poverty, homelessness, starvation, and violence.  Soon enough, we will find that global economic systems will be degraded to the point of being unable to provide work, sustenance, and support for their people.  This is the message of Contagion.  Solutions must be found, and soon.

Reports on Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Job Loss Published in May 2019  “57% See Artificial Intelligence as Threat to Human Race”, Scott Rasmussen, 4/24/19.  “Robots will ‘wipe out or drastically change’ millions of jobs: Millions of jobs could be wiped out or changed almost beyond recognition as robots swoop in and take over, experts have warned.”  Lucy Domachowski, 4/25/19.

“The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) has issued the stark warning estimating robots and AI will eliminate almost one in six roles completely, while a further third will “change radically”.  That brings the total of affected jobs to a massive 46%.  Experts from OECD say new jobs will be created to replace the lost posts, but traditional full-time, permanent employment may become a thing of the past for most workers, and those with the fewest skills and least training are most vulnerable.  An OECD report says: “Individuals will face deep and rapid changes: many will have to change not only their job but even their occupation, and most will have to modernize their skills and working practices.  “These transitions towards new jobs and occupations might be difficult and costly for a number of workers.” “  “ ‘Retail apocalypse’ now: Analysts say 75,000 more U.S. stores could be doomed”, Abha Bhattarai, Washington Post, 4/10/19.  “An estimated 75,000 stores that sell clothing, electronics and furniture will close by 2026, when online shopping is expected to make up 25% of retail sales, according to UBS. Roughly 16% of overall sales are made online.”

Rise of the robots: Bank deploys ‘ Pepper’ to assist customers”,   Ron Hurtibise, South Florida Sun Sentinel, 5/29/19.

“Don’t be afraid, but a robot is being deployed to serve you at one of the world’s largest banks.  Its name is Pepper. It’s a humanoid robot with a tablet for a chest and wheels that let it get around on its own. It’s shiny and cute. It has arms and it has hands that it can tighten into a fist.  But it doesn’t want to hurt you or take anyone’s job, say officials of HSBC Bank, where Pepper is being put to work.  …. SoftBank has deployed more than 15,000 Peppers across the globe since 2014, mostly to Asia — where they can be found in retail stores, restaurants, schools, and banks — and Europe, where, among other functions, they greet visitors at museums, libraries, and auto dealerships….”   “Robots are taking on more warehouse jobs”, 5/28/19.

Human workers are confined to opposite edges of this 17-acre roofed space: delivery bays and shipping bays about a football field apart. The vast concrete area between them belongs to 225 electric powered, eerily silent robotic Butlers that perform tasks people used to do.  …  Companies setting up ready-to-ship warehouses [in Georgia] last year included Target’s furniture line, Wayfair home furnishings and Dynacraft bikes and scooters. Amazon has four “fulfillment” centers scattered from Braselton to Macon.

It’s clear the industry is changing. What’s less clear is how much that will translate into a jobs boom or bust as automation and artificial intelligence increasingly take over the work.

The low-slung Butlers are manufactured by GreyOrange in Alpharetta, Georgia, the American headquarters of the Singapore company. … Products that arrive at one door can be stocked and on their way to buyers in as little as two hours, touched by human hands only two or three times.  “Robot in aisle 3: Retail turns more and more to machines”, Hiawatha Bray, 5/26/19.

Marty is not some teenager working an after-school shift. It is 140 pounds of plastic and metal, with glowing lights atop a towering frame with big cartoon eyes, and cameras and lasers to spot garbage, spills, and other stuff that shouldn’t be in the aisles of a supermarket.  The $35,000 machine is one of about 500 robots that Stop & Shop’s owner, the Dutch company Ahold Delhaize, has deployed in some of its US grocery stores. And in the process, Ahold is doing its part to normalize robots in public places.  … Walmart, for example, is deploying hundreds of machines to scrub the floors of its stores and take inventory by scanning the shelves. Companies such as Starship Technologies and are testing robots that roll down sidewalks delivering pizzas and soda pop in Seattle, London, Beijing, and other cities.  Meanwhile, Agility Robotics of Albany, Ore., recently announced a partnership with Ford Motor Co. on an automated package delivery system that combines a self-driving van with a two-legged walking robot. The van will drive itself to the destination; the robot will pick out the correct package and walk it to the customer’s doorstep. The only humans involved will probably be awestruck spectators. … [T]he rise of robots may threaten the jobs of millions of workers, such as those who went on strike earlier this year at Marty’s home base, Stop & Shop. Erikka Knuti, communications director for the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, said her group is all for technological innovation, but she said the company should invest in people first.  “Robots will take our jobs. We’d better plan now, before it’s too late”, Larry Elliott, 2/1/19.

The opening of the Amazon Go store in Seattle brings us one step closer to the end of work as we know it.  A new sort of convenience store opened in the basement of the headquarters of Amazon in Seattle in January. Customers walk in, scan their phones, pick what they want off the shelves and walk out again.  At Amazon Go, there are no checkouts and no cashiers. Instead, it is what the tech giant calls “just walk out” shopping, made possible by a new generation of machines that can sense which customer is which and what they are picking off the shelves. Within a minute or two of the shopper leaving the store, a receipt pops up on their phone for items they have bought.”  “Walmart experiments with AI to monitor stores in real time”, Anne D’Innocenzio, 4/25/19.  “5 Ways Robotics Will Disrupt the Construction Industry in 2019”, Kayla Mathews, 1/23/19.  “More than 7,000 Robots Will Work in Construction by 2025, Report Says: Worldwide market for construction robots to reach $226M over six years”, 5/7/19, RBR Staff.  “Ford layoffs hit 7,000 jobs worldwide, hundreds in US”,  Thomas Barrabi,  5/20/19.

“Ford Motor CompanyOpens a New Window. on Monday informed employees that it would lay off about 7,000 salaried workersOpens a New Window., or 10 percent of its global workforce, in the coming months in a cost-cutting measure that officials said would save about $600 million per year.”  “As Seattle’s new hotels roll out automation to serve guests, workers worry”, Melissa Hellmann,  5/18/19.  “Robots Thrive in the Forest on Jobs That Humans Find Too Boring”,  Jesper Starn, 5/10/19. “Swedish forest companies are using AI for tedious tasks”.  “More than 6m [UK] workers fear being replaced by machines – report: Government and trade unions urged to do more for those at risk from new technologies”, Richard Partington, 8/5/18.  “One in five UK post offices could close in next year, survey finds: Biggest concerns for postmasters include falling incomes and higher costs”, Angela Monaghan, 4/15/19.  “U.S. Postal Service Starts Testing Self-Driving Trucks: The 1,000-mile run between Phoenix and Dallas is part of a program aimed at making intercity mail transport less expensive and more efficient”, Jennifer Smith, 5/21/19. “The move comes as investors and vehicle makers are spending millions on trucking automation.” “Facebook Research is developing touchy-feely curious robots: We’re tantalizingly close to AI with all five senses”, Andrew Tarantola, 5/20/19.  “Robots Are Coming to Walmart and Making Employees Scared for Their Jobs”, Jennifer Calfas, Money, 4/12/19.  “Watch a Pack of Boston Dynamics’ Creepy Robot Dogs Pull a Truck: Spotmini isn’t just nimble, it’s super powerful, too”, Victor Tangermann, 4/16/19.  “In Video, Humanoid Robot Crosses Narrow Balance Beam Like A Cakewalk”, Peter Holley,  5/9/19.  “[T]he robot carefully moves across a series of narrow cinder blocks and a balance beam, revealing a degree of body control that many humans would struggle to maintain.”  “Miami’s flying car port is almost finished. And the flying cars are not far behind”, Rob Wile, 5/17/19.  Gwyn Topham, 5/16/19.  “A new “flying taxi” has been unveiled by German start-up Lilium, which claims the vertical take-off craft could be the basis for an on-demand air service within six years.”  “Robots Take the Wheel as Autonomous Farm Machines Hit the Field”, Ashley Robinson, Lydia Mulvany, and David Stringer, Bloomberg, 5/16/19. 

Robots are taking over farms faster than anyone saw coming.  The first fully autonomous farm equipment is becoming commercially available, which means machines will be able to completely take over a multitude of tasks. Tractors will drive with no farmer in the cab, and specialized equipment will be able to spray, plant, plow and weed cropland. And it’s all happening well before many analysts had predicted thanks to small startups in Canada and Australia.” “Robots Edge Closer to Unloading Trucks in Amazon-Era Milestone: New Siemens, Honeywell devices work at least as fast as people. ‘The job is miserable inside that trailer.’” Thomas Black, 5/3/19.  “AI is transforming humans into robots, right now”, Julia Limitone,  5/2/19.   “Google Spinoff’s Drone Delivery Business First to Get FAA Approval”, Alan Levin, 4/23/19. “For Lower-Paid Workers, the Robot Overlords Have Arrived: Software and algorithms are used to screen, hire, assign and now terminate workers”.  “Apple CEO [Tim Cook] tells college graduates: ‘We have failed you’ “, Sheila McClear, 5/20/19.  “Today, certain algorithms pull toward you the things that you already know, believe, or like, and they push away everything else. Push back!”

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