May 9, 2018

What if John Steinbeck was 100 years younger?  Would Grapes of Wrath be retitled Data of Wrath?  Just to recap the story for those like me who said they read it in high school but really only skimmed it to find relevant quotes to use in the essay.  This story is set in the dustbowl mid west USA 1930s.  Tom Joad is recently released on parole for killing someone with a shovel.  He hitchhikes and then walks to his family home to find it abandoned and the damaged from a tractor having run through it.  He walks to his uncles farm to find the family loading up a truck to move to Beverly – no wait, that’s the Beverly Hill Billies.  The Joads were heading for California to pick fruit.  I won’t give it all away as it is a riveting story once you get used to the way they speak.

The reason the Joads had to move is because the drought had meant that they had no income and couldn’t pay off their loans to the banks in New York.  The banks resumed the land and forced the tenants off using tractors to push over their homes.  There was a mass exodus to California where there was supposed to be work, but there wasn’t.  You can only imagine where the story goes from there.

So what’s the relevance and what has this got to do with AI?  The banks pushed tens of thousands of people off the land in search of work.  Can you imagine banks doing that sort of thing today?  Is AI the modern equivalent of the dirty thirties?  At the moment there is some concern about the advent of AI.  Notable people such as Elon Musk have raised concerns.

half of these experts (48 percent) envision a future in which robots and digital agents [will] have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers—with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.

Nice.  This does sound a little ominous.  What I take from this is that 52% of these experts didn’t think that it was as bad as all that.  It does, however,  give some weight to the Grapes of Wrath analogy.

I actually have a more optimistic outlook.  While clearly many people more intelligent and qualified than me are thinking the worst, my view is that AI will actually lead to great productivity gains and as such greater prosperity.  It will create new industries that we have yet to envision.  The work that Simient has done to date with AI supports this.  The applications that we have built allow better utilisation of scarce resources.  Enabling in demand professionals such as Ear, Nose and Throat specialists to care for more people.  These applications are not about taking peoples jobs, but about empowering professionals to effectively serve more people.

There are many opinions on this and it can be a polarizing issue.  Where do you think that this is leading are we heading to Cali to pick fruit, or are things all rosy down on the farm?