The human use of human beings

Such was the title of a book by Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics. In his book, published in 1950, Wiener pondered on the social questions and consequences of automation, at a time when the computer age was still an idea in very few people’s heads. Being an optimist he considered the mechanisation of work as a boon, a transformational technological leap towards a future where people would be emancipated of repetitive, routine tasks, and given to a more meaningful life of creative and artistic pursuits.

Norbert Wiener…automating…

Sixty-five years later computers all but run our planet. They connect companies, businesses and individuals in an intricate web of exchanges several orders of magnitude more complex that has even been in the history of humankind. And they get smarter by the day. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning systems would soon become the norm. They will embed in existing systems by adding an extra layer of cognitive computing in the architectural stack. Platforms such as IBM Watson will see to the acceleration of cognitive computing, as developers become enabled to quickly build applications with the ability to learn, communicate in plain English, search for patterns, and much more. The impact of cognitive computing will have profound consequences in every aspect of our economic, social and personal life. This time automation will go far beyond manufacturing; it will usher the “fourth industrial revolution” that Wiener had in mind in his prophetic book. But there is a caveat.

In 2013 a research paper by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, both at Oxford University, reported on what could happen when Artificial Intelligence and Machine learning systems become prevalent, and when many cognitive tasks currently undertaken by humans are passed over to intelligent computers. The result, argued the authors, would be that 47% of total US employment became obsolete. Their findings are corroborated by a persistent trend in labour economics over past decades where middle-income jobs become “hollowed-out” – in other words they disappear or stagnate – due to computer automation. The first industrial revolution in the 1800s saw machines replacing manual labour; the fourth will be about replacing intellectual labour, knowledge and expertise, white-collar workers, the likes of you and me. What will the “human use of human beings” be in such a bleak future of unemployment and underemployment?

Perhaps cybernetics can inform us, and more importantly uplift us, with optimism. Wiener and the other forebears of modern computing had a very sophisticated conceptual model of how humans and machines would, and should, integrate and collaborate. This model was based on taking observations about complex natural systems, such as ecosystems or the human body, and rethinking them in the context of complex systems made up of minds and machines. Central to complex systems, that are also stable, is the idea of “entropy” – the magnitude of their disorder if you will. Nature is a lazy beast, and abandoned to her own devices she will dissolve and disorganise. But something interesting happens when parts of the natural world connect and communicate with one another: entropy is reduced and complex organisation is spontaneously created. Consequently, new behaviours arise: weather, life, markets, art and culture. The more intricate and complex the organisation of a system is the more interesting its behaviour. What makes, and brakes, organised complexity is communication between the parts. In fact, communication is the single most important factor that decides the degree of complexity of a system. Take for instance our brain, perhaps one of the most complex systems in the universe. It is the massive parallelism of communications and feedback loops that connect our neurons together that make us who we are: self-aware beings with the ability to learn, love, and create.

So here’s the silver lining in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Leaning coming of age: cognitive computer systems will facilitate communications between humans and machines like never before. They will do so not only through natural language and speech, but also through such things as wearables, affective computing and direct brain-to-machine interfaces. With time, human society and the economy will shift towards a new state of ever more complex organisation that is impossible to predict today. Given, however, what Wiener and cybernetics have taught us, we can be hopeful that this new state of systems organisation will unleash a formidable and unforeseen range of new opportunities: the future of automating intelligence would thus become a new age for humans empowered by friendly machines.

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