I have been following advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous vehicles (AV) for some time now. At first, I was a cautious; then I became a skeptic; and now I am a doubter.
Although impressive, these accomplishments play to AI’s strengths. Any activity that can be reduced to algorithms are natural for AIs. These AI victories have created a belief by many that AIs will soon take over most jobs and eventually become our masters. Witness such motion picture franchises as The Matrix and The Terminator. Some serious intellects buy into this concern as shown in the book Our Final Invention. This book posits that AIs pose a threat to human existence. The book extrapolates the successes of AIs discussed above and predicts that AIs will eventually be many times more intelligent than humans and will somehow develop something like consciousness. Ultimately, the AIs will seek to eliminate us.
I find these concerns almost comical. AIs connected to robots can do some very impressive things. In electronic assembly, they can hand solder very effectively. Perhaps better than humans, and they don’t get tired. But, they are not flexible. If the hand soldering operation changes to a different design, the AI must be reprogrammed. Whereas a human can quickly change from design to design. Lack of flexibility is a major AI drawback.
AIs also lack common sense. As Stephen Pinker has pointed out, no AI can empty a dishwasher. This is a profoundly common sense operation for humans. Yet this task is not only beyond AIs of today, but likely will be for a long time. Even something as simple as unloading boxes from a truck is a challenge to AIs as pointed out recently in Bloomberg BusinessWeek.[i]
This lack of flexibility and common sense makes it very hard for AIs to compete against humans when multiple tasks are required.
It is also difficult for AI robots to display dexterity. They may be able to pick up a chestnut, but crush a strawberry. This task is simple for an 18-month-old human.
The promise of autonomous vehicles is also greatly exaggerated. For a few years, some self-driving cars have been able to drive 95% of the route from my house in Woodstock, VT, to Boston’s Logan airport. However, they have made little progress in negotiating country roads, detours, and routes with complex signage. In addition, AVs lack situational awareness. As an example, AVs can’t look at a group of people near a street corner and sense if they are planning to cross or not.
So, I don’t see AIs taking all of our jobs or AVs putting truck drivers out of work any time soon. But the good news is that more electronics will be needed as these technologies make their slow advancements. So I see a busy future in the electronics assembly world.