Friday, 31 January 2014

Que Sera, Sera

One Dystopian Vision of the Future,
as Imagined in 1976

"It's my job to freeze you."

The special effects are laughable now, and the pretensions of what the future would look like perhaps even more comical, but the made-for-tv movie Logan's Run (featuring a young Farrah Fawcet before The Poster) came to mind when I read a recent coumn here by John Derbyshire.  In it, the professional pessimist provides some thoughts on the impact on work and prospects for life in the not-distant future.  A future where technology has improved to, if not true AI, some semblance of it.

It isn't particularly pretty.

Derbyshire himself was reacting to a recent piece in The Economist, in which the question of if (when?) office workers get displaced en masse, what becomes of them?

From the original article, titled "The Onrushing Wave":

Text-mining programs will displace professional jobs in legal services. Biopsies will be analyzed more efficiently by image-processing software than lab technicians. Accountants may follow travel agents and tellers into the unemployment line as tax software improves. Machines are already turning basic sports results and financial data into good-enough news stories.
I am not convinced that real artificial intelligence is ever going to arrive (it's a bit of a philosophical card game, but the so-called "Chinese Room" of John Searle, I find particularly convincing), but as Derbyshire argues, the technology does not have to be perfect; it just has to be good enough.

THAT, I find incredibly convincing.

I can say that, in the case of imaging, there currently are diagnostic companies creating machines and algorithms to quickly and accurately discriminate among MRIs, PET scans, x-rays, blood screens, and the like, looking for signs of cancer, genetic defects, heart disease, and a host of other diseases.  

I personally have been involved in work to help a pseudo-neural network "learn" to recognise early signs of Alzheimer's disease from whole-brain and hippocampal images.  No one would rely on a machine to make a diagnosis without expert review by a human doctor, but the technology is quickly moving to the point of deployment, and high-sensitivity testing is close.  What remains today is the specificity that a human eye provides.

That may not be enough to do away with radiologists, but it can certainly reduce the need for their numbers.  And if it can happen to medical doctors, well...If you work in an office creating PowerPoint slides, I would not get too comfortable.

Surgical robots are also currently available, though of course, they still require a human being to operate them.  The whole thing is a bit like the scene from Logan's Run where Logan goes in for plastic surgery, and a robot performs the task.  Now, the downside of such a system is vividly displayed in the movie, but...

Derbyshire then goes to the next mile to ask, what happens when - and he presumes it is a slam-dunk - the day of reckoning comes.

From the 2009 book We Are Doomed

The assumption here is that like the buggy-whip makers you hear about from economic geeks, like dirt farmers migrating to factory jobs, like the middle-class engineer of 1960, the cube people of today will go do something else, creating a new middle class from some heretofore-despised category of drudges. But… what? Which category of despised drudges will be the middle class of tomorrow? Do you have any ideas? I don’t. What comes after office work? What are we all going to do? The same thing Bartleby the Scrivener did, perhaps, but collectively and generationally.
What is the next term in the series: farm, factory, office…? There isn't one. The evolution of work has come to an end point, and the human race knows this in its bones. Actually in its reproductive organs: the farmer of 1800 had six or seven kids, the factory worker of 1900 three or four, the cube jockey of 2000 one or two. The superfluous humans of 2100, if there are any, will hold at zero. What would be the point of doing otherwise? [emphasis mine]

Our current economic model is based upon a growing GDP.  Machines undoubtedly will improve our ability to produce.  But if there are not customers to buy those products, well.  Then what?  

Which brings us back to Logan.  

Recall in the movie, that most of the people spend all of their time in a sort of narcissistic, sybaritic haze.  No one works; they merely consume.  It all seems like a sort of paradise, albeit a mildly dystopic one.  There is one problem - your life ends at 30.  

In the movie, it's never explained why - though the implication is that some catastrophic event occurred, forcing people to move into a climate-controlled bubble (it was 1976, so it was mostly like a nuclear war, not global warming - an updated version has allegedly been in the works for some time, and climate change is my bet for the culprit).  This space crunch necessitated the euthanasia, as it's unlikely the declining ability to work/contribute as one ages factored in, since no one is working.

Is that our future - carelessly spending our days doing little to nothing beyond amusing ourselves?  Derbyshire offers his own view:

The prospect, then, is for dwindling job opportunities, with handsome rewards for the Overclass of creative, very smart, and/or well-placed citizens, while the great mass of persons for whom there is no economic use vegetate in good-enough welfare provisioning, like the “thetes” of Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age.
Sounds a bit like Santa Clara County, California today.

We are going to find out, that's for sure.

In case you're curious, one of the stars of the movie - Jenny Agutter - had a very curious future, indeed.  She wound up a bit player in one of the 1990s "Chucky" movies, eventually being killed by a doll.

Might be the perfect, metaphorical ending.

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