Let's Not Make AI The New Y2K Scare

Posted on July 31, 2017 by - Also by this author

Remember the Y2K scare? It was both artificial and unintelligent. (Creative Commons Flickr.com photo by bdunnette)
Remember the Y2K scare? It was both artificial and unintelligent. (Creative Commons Flickr.com photo by bdunnette)

In my column in the August issue, I take on some of the hype and scare talk emerging around artificial intelligence (AI), and what it means for the workplace and wider economy.

The mostly negative coverage of AI reminds me of another doomsday scenario, widely reported in the media I once was part of: Y2K. Anyone remember that deflated spectacle? Starting already in 1998, media audiences were spooked by the specter of computers crashing worldwide because programmers way back in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s failed to install four digits for the year in the time fields. What if all computers switched from 12-31-99 to 01-01-00 and thought it was 1900?! Or 1800?! Pass me my buggy whip for my bomb shelter, please.

At the time, I was business editor for a suburban daily newspaper in Los Angeles and dutifully published articles about Y2K, and the prospect of systems such as utilities, communications, electrical grids, and aviation melting down into a Left Behind scenario. Computer engineers were scrambling to retrofit date fields across all types of software systems: Would they be done in time?!

Well, New Year’s Eve finally came. Instead of taking the company day off, I volunteered to work into the evening just in case. By 9 p.m. West Coast time, the East Coast seemed to be intact at the stroke of midnight. No one panicked in Time’s Square. I left early for a New Year’s Eve party, confident the next morning’s headlines would be all about: 01/01/2000!

Now, I see a silly repeat with the theatrics over AI. Most recently, Space X and Tesla founder Elon Musk ominously called for government to regulate AI because it’s, in his words, “the greatest risk we face as a civilization.” (I thought that was supposed to be climate change, from which Teslas are saving us?). Let’s leave aside the fact Musk is succeeding with his Tesla venture due to massive taxpayer-funded federal and state vehicle buying credits and self-abasing giveaways from the government of Nevada. And that he aims to make Tesla vehicles driverless someday, which certainly qualifies as AI. He seems to buy into the social destabilization argument about job losses.

Since I published by column, another counterpoint to Musk appeared in the July 22 edition of the Wall Street Journal by AI expert Jerry Kaplan of Stanford University. He underscores the perspective of more reasoned experts. His point: AI will eliminate some jobs, create even more, and free up time and wealth to pursue new, creative, and productive jobs and activities. I would add, if you use kitchen appliances, then you’ve bought into the concept of enjoying more machine efficiency that came at the cost of some jobs. Also, have you heard of any starving former elevator operators?

For luxury service industries like chauffeured transportation, Kaplan offers this hope: “As we become wealthier, consumers are likely to allocate an increasing share of their income to premium services. This is precisely the segment of the economy where personal care, face-to-face interaction, and demonstrations of skill are critical to the value delivered. Luxury hotels are not prized because they are more efficient, but because their staff is more attentive. People pay more to watch a barista brew their latte than for a comparable product from a vending machine.”

See the industry’s destiny. Even if AI actually pulls off a driverless world, and that’s still a big if-and-when, luxury clients will need personal (human) service and attention. No robot can replace the universal desire for human connection. Time and energy spent on manning reservations, dispatch, call centers, and websites could be devoted to an array of mobile concierge, valet, tour guide, greeter, and vehicle fleet management services, all done in the flesh. Human contact may even become a premium amenity conferring high status.

For business owners, think of money and hassles saved: Robots doing physical work won’t be asking for workers’ comp, forming unions, and calling lawyers.

So with all due respect to Musk and his big business-big government micro-managing allies, I worry more about a rogue algorithm lurching a driverless Tesla off a cliff than machines taking over menial, minimum wage routines. While no one person is indispensable, the superior human race is irreplaceable.

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