Friday, April 2, 2010

From Darkness, Light

Emily Howell's new album, from Darkness, Light, is not to my taste. It's a bit too ambient and arty. You might say it's a little soulless. But it's not bad for a machine. I can't imagine our first efforts at writing music for whales would be much better. Her purely derivative works, written in the style of existing composers, are very respectible.
Emily Howell is software. She'll get better. The algorithm will improve, react to market trends, and find the musical keys to move our souls.

Science fiction taught us that artificial intelligence would be invented. It would walk onstage one day, refuse to open the pod bay doors, and announce it would be back. That's not how it's working out. Instead it creeps up on us year by year as they machines take over increasingly complex tasks. Few people remember typing pools, switchboard operators and countless other jobs of the past. We think nothing now of using machines as our research assistants, taking dictation, checking for plagiarism. In five year we'll think nothing of usable machine translation, automated essay grading, machines that write our newspaperscheck our diagnosis and fight our wars.

When my eldest daughter starts University in 2023, the computer in her hand will have twice the raw processing power as the one in her head. Distributed computing will put power several orders of magnitude beyond that in her reach. The Turing Test, where a computer can pass for a human, may well be passed by the time she graduates. Profitable niche applications, like generating unique third year history essays at €5 each, or gaming financial systems will reach a point where they can pass for human much sooner than that.

The implications of this for how we teach, and what we teach is Universities is profound and largely ignored. We assume the skills we teach in University are magically beyond automation. Since the first water wheel, machines have displaced human effort, and created a surplus of labour found other, better jobs. The plough freed us to be poets, the steelworkers of the 19th century are the knowledge workers of the 21st. But now the island of our cognitive superiority is shrinking as the waters rise exponentially. The 21st century will be a knowledge economy, but it won't be our knowledge.

It will take time for the change to work through. It often takes a generation for an innovation to move from the journals to the shop floor, and institutional change is also often generational too. What is possible often takes a decade or two to become commonplace, but it does eventually. It isn't science fiction

The changes will be radical. First, practical degrees like science and engineering will become less and less economically attractive in mid century. Softer skills, which might be more difficult for machines to replicate will become more economically attractive. Interpersonal disciplines, where humans prefer to deal with humans, like Medicine, or Theatre, will be the last refuge of economically useful degrees. By the end of the century, as we become habituated to dealing with machines, and no longer notice, or care, about the difference, that too will vanish. Through the century, an increasing proportion the jobs in our economy will be unrelated to production of good and services. We have allready made the journey to from having 100% of humans working in food production to only having (in the first world) a handful. Other industries will make that transition too. With nothing left to do, by centuries end our University system will become largely an entertainment system, a place for humans to amuse ourselves and pass the time.

My daughter says she wants to be a Dinosaur when she grows up. I think she might be right.

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