Artificial intelligence is undergoing a revolution and Amazon and Microsoft are in the thick of it. But what happens when AI becomes so sophisticated it can take the jobs of computer scientists?

Share story

If you’ve used Google Translate for a while, you’ve noticed that it’s gotten better, much better.

This the result of a revolutionary leap in artificial intelligence (AI) developed by the company’s Google Brain skunk works.

It was the subject of a very long article in The New York Times Magazine last Sunday, but this is no quick and easy subject. Nerds even dispute the real meaning of AI today.

The ubiquitous GPS maps feature in automobiles might once have been considered “artificial intelligence.” The device plotting your route and telling you where to turn is, in a crude way, “thinking” — albeit with plenty of human input.

Now the goal is called artificial general intelligence.

The article’s author, Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes, “Artificial general intelligence will not involve dutiful adherence to explicit instructions, but instead will demonstrate a facility with the implicit, the interpretive. It will be a general tool, designed for general purposes in a general context.”

We’re talking about machines that can learn, and not from top-down inputs but rather like the brain of a child, only acquiring knowledge and skills much faster than humans.

“Google’s decision to reorganize itself around AI was the first major manifestation of what has become an industrywide machine-learning delirium,” Lewis-Kraus writes.

And companies in the Puget Sound region are in the mix.

“Over the past four years, six companies in particular — Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and the Chinese firm Baidu — have touched off an arms race for AI talent, particularly within universities.”

On the surface, this seems like another chance for technopolis Seattle to shine — from software to e-commerce, cloud computing to AI. As of October, more than 102,000 were employed in the information sector in the Seattle-Bellevue-Everett metropolitan division. At the peak of the dot-com boom, December 2000, the number was 79,500.

Slicing the sector a little thinner, the metro area had a little less than 56,000 employed in software publishing, a little less than a third higher than the dot-com peak. Both of these are historic peaks for the region.

But will the trends continue?

After all, AI is part of a new wave of advanced automation and robotics that have the potential to displace millions of jobs. This is not news to regular readers here, as I have written on it before. And it’s been happening already, with automation at least as much to blame for job displacement as trade.

Many of those positions lost were repetitive and lower-skilled. Now the phenomenon is moving up into more sophisticated jobs, in medicine and legal services, for example.

What happens if AI starts to displace coders and even the most skilled software engineers, or at least slows demand for them?

The shoe in technopolis would be on a very painful other foot.

The other night I ran this scenario by a friend who is an industry veteran. She was not concerned. Someone, she said, would still have to write the programs that AI apps follow.

This was also the view of a slight majority in a survey of industry experts two years ago by the Pew Research Center. Although the responses didn’t specifically discuss the software sector, 52 percent didn’t expect technology to displace more jobs than it creates by 2025.

Sure, robots and AI will take over many jobs. “But they have faith that human ingenuity will create new jobs, industries and ways to make a living, just as it has been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution,” the report read.

Yet 48 percent of the experts held a sharply different view. They “envision a future in which robots and digital agents 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.”

The Obama White House has been paying attention. In October, it released the thought-provoking “Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence” report and a companion plan on federal research investment. And last week, came a follow-up, “Artificial Intelligence, Automation and the Economy.”

Taken together, these reports discuss in depth the opportunity and risks of an AI future. They are holistic in linking the economic, social and even military spheres, discussing the danger of even greater rises in inequality, the great benefits of AI and potential government responses.

Unfortunately, the new administration has a dim view of science. So these reports and the focus they represent may fade away. Meanwhile, the GOP-controlled Congress seems determined to further weaken the social-safety net, one thing desperately needed as AI moves in.

And maybe the computer elite here will continue to grow and prosper, and I am only channeling my inner Andy Grove.

Yet with AI even the paranoid may not survive. Judgment day may not come from Skynet, the nuclear-apocalypse-starting machine from the “Terminator” movies, becoming self aware. It may only be Morgan Freeman’s soothing voice — tapped by Facebook for its AI assistant — telling the programmers, “You’re fired.”