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What’s to become of humanity when AI replaces us all?

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

Humanity is turning a corner. The signpost is marked “AI.” Everyone knows what it stands for. Who knows what it means?

We know what it’s beginning to look like. “Futuristic” is a word that springs to mind. “Presentistic” would be better, but the dictionary fails us. Artificial intelligence is here, now; nothing like what it will be, even more unlike anything that’s ever been. Shukan Diamond magazine profiles the embryo. It sees good and bad, opportunities and pitfalls. Think of it as a wave. You either ride it or drown. Corporate Japan, it fears, is riding it very unsteadily, its “AIQ” dangerously low. It risks finding itself on the wrong side of the “AI gap” — where, really, there is no future.

The annual CES makes for as good a prologue as any. CES is the current official name for what used to be called the Consumer Electronics Show, sponsored by the American Consumer Technology Association. Its history goes back 50 years. Pocket radios were the hot item at the maiden expo in 1967. Last month in Las Vegas, “smart” was the key word — smart appliances, smart speakers, smart bots, smart cars, even a smart dog — all AI-enhanced, the better to serve you, dance to your tune, meet your needs, fulfill your dreams, gratify your whims, turn life into a never-ending carnival of ease, entertainment, wealth creation and who knows what else.

These are devices you can talk to. They understand you when you speak, sometimes even before you speak, for they can learn too, and after a time they get to know your habits, moods, preferences, facial expressions and so on. And unlike human friends, lovers, family members or employees, they have no selfish motives, no higher purpose in life than your happiness, for which they bend over backward without ever seeming to, without a trace of sour resentment at being exploited or taken advantage of.

The smart dog’s name is Aibo. Its winning ways have made it a big hit. It’s cuddly like a pup, clever and friendly and amusing like a well-brought-up child, and clean as a whistle. Sony, its maker, gave it cameras and sensors to tell it who’s who and what’s what. It can find a bone, go after a ball, recognize you and yours, negotiate your living room full of furniture. Had enough of it? Turn it off. Try doing that to a real dog.

Aibo aside, Shukan Diamond says, Japan’s presence at CES was relatively unimpressive. Participating Japanese companies numbered 48, as against 209 South Korean and 1,329 Chinese. Numbers aren’t everything, but behind the numbers may lurk a larger problem: Japan’s inbred conservatism, its unwillingness to embrace the new and emerging. A survey the magazine cites finds 50 percent of U.S. managers to be AI-literate, versus 10 percent of Japanese.

It won’t do. You can no more skirt the “AI revolution” today than, two and three centuries ago, you could the Industrial Revolution. An 18th-century British weaver named Ned Ludd tried. He and the mob he led smashed the new factory machines that were throwing manual workers out of work. The English language honors him to this day with the word “luddite,” synonymous more or less with “technophobic.” Otherwise, however, history passed him by.

That said, AI is disquieting. At least it has aspects that are. Two that Shukan Diamond identifies are massive unemployment and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor — those who ride the wave and those who fail to. One it does not mention is the enhanced potential of the “surveillance society.” The word “Orwellian” is frequently invoked in this context, but Chuo University professor Yushi Okajima, author of “Biggu Data no Wana” (“The Big Data Trap”), tells the Asahi Shimbun: “Unlike the terrifying society described in (George Orwell’s novel) ‘1984,’ this is gentlemanly surveillance. Whether you see it as a cradle or as a cage would depend on how you look at it.” It’s a stunted choice. Neither cradle nor cage seems a fit environment for free adult human beings.

Inequality embitters deprivation. Shukan Diamond presents a capsule history. Preindustrialized society was a rough equality of widely shared poverty. The privileged minority born to better things was embodied in revered institutions such as royalty and the church. Forbearance snapped from time to time, revolt occurred, but resignation predominated. The Industrial Revolution shattered it. The filthy rich, no longer titled aristocrats but rapacious capitalists, stung the filthy poor into perpetual discontent, sullen or explosive as the case may be. Labor unions and labor laws tamed capitalism to some extent; slowly, the gap shrank. Japan in the 1980s was among the world’s most egalitarian middle-class societies.

With the ’90s, inequality returned, recession throwing the most vulnerable into relative poverty. Kakusa shakai (the “gap” society) became a watchword. That gap is what AI could widen beyond anything yet known.

The Industrial Revolution, in destroying old jobs, created new ones. The AI revolution will not. What intelligent machines can do better, faster and more cheaply than humans will be assigned to them. A 2015 study by Nomura Research foresees 49 percent of current jobs being taken over by AI. Unemployment will cease to be a hopefully temporary condition a small percentage of unfortunates fall into. It will be chronic and massive. Two questions arise, one economic (what will the unemployed live on?); the other social and psychological (what will they do with themselves?).

A possible partial solution to the first may lie in the concept of “basic income.” The idea is not new. It has roots in 18th-century social thought. It would confer on everyone, as a matter of right, just enough money to lead a minimally decent life. How much is that? Figure ¥65,000 a month, suggests Shukan Diamond. The overall annual cost would be ¥95 trillion. Where would the money come from? Partly from existing welfare programs that a basic income would make redundant, partly from taxes on the wealth AI would generate.

Let’s hypothetically consider the purely economic obstacles overcome. There remains the larger problem. What will people do with themselves? How will we spend our time? What lies ahead: the ultimate fulfillment of the age-old dream of a life of cultured and creative leisure? Or a descent into blank, mindless apathy?

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”