Sunday, February 14, 2016

What Will Humans Do?

The Guardian asks "Would you bet against sex robots? AI 'could leave half of world unemployed'":
Machines could put more than half the world’s population out of a job in the next 30 years, according to a computer scientist who said on Saturday that artificial intelligence’s threat to the economy should not be understated. 
Expert Moshe Vardi told the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS): "We are approaching a time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task. 
"I believe that society needs to confront this question before it is upon us: if machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?"
Given the article's salacious headline, one can well imagine what the humans would be doing. While half the humans are kept busy servicing the sex robots, economists will be fully employed reassuring the other half that supply creates its own demand, technology creates more jobs than it destroys and there is not a fixed amount of work to be done.

The amount of work to be done is admittedly not fixed but supply does not "create its own demand." Say's Law is neither Say's nor is it a law. Meanwhile, there is only so much cheap and cheerful energy to go around and a certain quantity of atmosphere to accumulate carbon dioxide in.

Fifteen years before Jean-Baptiste Say's birth, in Reflections on the Expediency of a Law for the Naturalization of Foreign Protestants, Josiah Tucker, Rector of St. Stephen's in Bristol and Chaplain to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Bristol, asked:
Whether Sir Josiah Child did not call it a VULGAR ERROR to say, We have more Hands than we can employ? Whether he was a Judge of Trade? And Whether it is not an infallible Maxim, That one Man's Labour creates Employment for another?"
The relentless questioning of the "Important Queries occasioned by The Rejection of the late Naturalization Bill," in Tucker's Reflections, made the tract unusual but not unique in eighteenth century writings on political economy. In 1736, George Berkeley published the 895-question tract, The Querist. The significance of this interrogative genre was noted in an intriguing analysis by George Caffentzis, "Querying the Querist," in his Exciting the Industry of Mankind: George Berkeley’s Philosophy of Money.

Caffentzis points out that Berkeley was a master of elenchus, which he practiced daily. In a footnote, Caffentzis cites Peter Walmsley's discussion of elenchus in Berkeley's work. Walmsley offers the following explanation of the exercise:
For the ancients, elenchus was primarily an exercise for students in logic and definition. Its technique was developed in the teaching practices of Socrates and the sophists, and its rules were later laid down by Aristotle at the Academy. These are, briefly, as follows. One student, who accepts the role of answerer, states a thesis. Another then attempts to refute this thesis, not by direct argument or evidence, but by asking a series of simple questions. To each question the answerer may only reply 'yes' or 'no'. The questioner's aim is to force the answerer to contradict his initial statement. This idiosyncratic form of debate entails several constraints. The initial thesis must be of a form that permits analysis: a maxim or a definition rather than a plain statement of fact. … Similarly, the progress of elenctic dialogue depends on the answerer's ability to resist the temptation to qualify his answers. In the Protagoras, for example, Socrates strives in vain to convince the sophist that short answers are called for. Finally, it is essential to successful elenchus that the answerer speak his mind. Plato shows how the dispute can become mired when an evasive answerer, such as Euthydemus, pretends to hold ridiculous but consistent views, rather than admit self-contradiction. In the eyes of Plato and Aristotle such dishonest thinkers played not elenchus, but eristic, which term seemed to designate nothing but the disputants' failure to commit themselves to the pursuit of truth.
Is there a fixed Amount of Work to be done? Does Technology create more Jobs than it destroys? Does Supply create its own Demand? Is it not an infallible Maxim, That one Man's Labour creates Employment for another? The surprising answer to these questions -- or about them -- is that they are not stand-alone questions with stand-alone, indubitable answers. They function as elements in a sequence of questions, the purpose of which is to encourage the questioning of popular prejudices, not to impose the dogma of received wisdom.

The answers to the various questions are not uniformly positive or negative. Thus the phrasing, "is it not an infallible Maxim," can only be approached with suspicion.