The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Monday, December 21, 2015

People Have to Work

Last week, I gave a talk about the potential threats posed by artificial intelligence as we move inexorably toward "artificial general intelligence." My audience was a group of academics and IT professionals in New Delhi, India.

One of the threats I discussed was the "labor substitution problem." That is, the ability of advanced combination of computing and robotics to eliminate the need for human workers across a broad range of work—from low-skill labor to blue collar skilled labor to white collar professional labor. Most technologists recognize this threat but rationalize it by suggesting that new jobs will replace the old ones and that "progress" demands these advances.

After the talk I visited a number of cities throughout India and gained additional insight into all of this.  Throughout the country, artisanal work is being conducted in much the same manner as it has been conducted for centuries, using tools that have remained largely unchanged for centuries, by people who are descendants of the laborers, artisans and craftsman who built the spectacular 16th century temples, forts, and palaces that can be found throughout India.

In Agra, I visited the Taj Mahal. The facade of the Taj Mahal is inlaid marble, crafted by thousands of artisans almost 500 years ago. Its beauty is striking, even by modern standards. Later in the day, I spoke with a man who told me about the descendants of the artisans who worked on the Taj Mahal. In 2015, those descendants continue to work with marble inlay, by hand, using ancient tools and methods. Semi-precious stones 1 mm thick are inlaid into Makrana marble. The process is painfully slow and difficult. But a beautiful end product does result.

I wondered aloud why the stone inlay patterns weren't created on a CAD system, translated to a dxf file, ported to a water jet cutter, and cut accurately in 1/100 the time. The man looked puzzled.

"What would the families of the stone cutters do?" he asked. "This is what their great grandfathers and grandfathers did, what their fathers taught them, what they do today, and what their children learn as they assist their fathers."

In that instant, the labor substitution problem became very real.

The man went on, "We are a country [India] of 1.2 billion people—1.2 billion! People have to work. Better that they do things the old ways and have the work to do. Without work, bad things will begin to happen."

As technologists, we look to improve things through automation. In a country like India (or the USA, for that matter) some improvements might best be left alone.

People have to work.