A CES Takeaway: Don’t Fear Robots And Artificial Intelligence–Fear Politicians

Maroon 5 keeps popping up on my Pandora stations, so artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning still have a ways to go. Even if AI can beat us at Go.

But, wow, that aside, the technologies showcased at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (#CES2017, actually the 50th annual, sponsored by the Consumer Technology Association [CTA]), from countless robots to Hyundai exoskeletons, are incredible.

Voice recognition, virtual and augmented reality, smart home technologies and drones are everywhere. AI and machine learning comprise major threads.

Which raises the question; will all that AI be Democrat or Republican?

Just kidding. But a new concern has become very apparent: Some policymakers intend to exploit the rise of AI to expand government power.

Will the tech sector stand for that; or worse, cheer it on?

There was an important public policy track at CES featuring the likes of FCC and FTC commissioners, and members of Congress. While all sang the praises of the Internet of Things (about which the FTC and the CTA itself published frameworks), policymakers tend to fret over data breaches and to support federally imposed privacy by design, since AI advances need massive data.

But that ignores government’s own abysmal record at thwarting hacks or intrusions on almost all the major agencies.

That’s just one example of federal tone-deafness. Given the AI emphasis at CES, I was surprised to hear no mention (at panels I attended) of the White House’s December 2016 report, Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy. This document was a follow-up to an October Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence report calling for federally funded research and partnerships and agency-driven plans.

Unfortunately, the new report is a social-policy document written in a way that deflects from government’s role in economic stagnation (95 million out of the labor force). By preemptively blaming AI and automation for tomorrow’s labor disruptions, Washington can create a basis for massive expansions of social-spending programs. Some technologies outside government, like Elon Musk, feed the frenzy that robots will displace humans, necessitating perhaps ultimately the so-called Universal Basic Income.

Normally, technology reduces the sphere of “market failure” and the subject matter for top-down regulation. I’m not unhopeful, but the federal administrative state is salivating at the prospect of permanent support of the adult population.

The White House tone, and press coverage from the likes of the Financial Times, is Malthusian (“millions” displaced). With massive redistribution, it proposes to handhold workers with state-sponsored “training” as society adopts automation. “The Vote” will be changed forever, as the middle third of the cradle-to-grave interlude is filled.

The alternative policy approach, reducing the hyper-spending, hyper-regulatory policies that impede employment, barely registers. The one exception was calling occupational licensing an employment barrier (p. 40). But policies are contradictory; while the White House lists numerous driving jobs threatened by automation (p. 15), it proposes minimum wage policies (p. 38) that not only cause unemployment but artificially inspire automation.

Even if a relatively non-rending transition to widespread AI is eminently possible to us, the fears and unease generated are too perfect, too juicy, too irresistible. In a normal world, AI would reduce the power of the elites, something intolerable to them.

Therefore we are assured by the White House, “Market forces alone, however, will not ensure that the financial benefits from innovations are broadly shared.” (p. 12.)

So I submit the immediate problem with AI is not the outright displacing of jobs that gets attention at CES, but the “let no crisis go to waste” exploitation of it to create social chaos and dependency and to avoid addressing the real barriers to job expansion. After all, I heard several note that in the wake of Uber, the traditional taxi business in Las Vegas has increased, not shrank. But the UBI too conveniently marries techno-fears with today’s popular “income inequality” ones.

Now, of course, popular concern over AI is everywhere; you can read that AI will eradicate humans on the one hand, and the insistence that AI robots will need voting rights on the other. AI isn’t going to wipe out humanity before CES 2018, but the White House infatuation with federal funding overlooks the prevalence of military research when calling for yet more government funding. AI doesn’t need to go “rogue” when designed as autonomous weaponry to start with; when Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics are programmed out, not in.

Most certainly, it isn’t a non-issue that cyborgs will be able to work 24 hours a day while we need breaks. Still, for many, technology has not increased leisure in the form of of reducing our availability to our employer, it has decreased it. Cuts both ways.

But it is very true that pace of job change is too much too fast, for far too many. But this can be transitory, needed support can be given that does not call for re-engineering the entire relationship of the individual to the state. Fundamentally, economic commentators like John Tamny are right that automation frees capital for many other things and for many other jobs (“Robots Will Be the Biggest Job Creators Yet”). Also I’ve heard economist Donald Boudreaux note that if there are people with unmet needs because of robots, then, almost by definition, there opportunities for other humans to fill.

Our real problem isn’t AI’s societal impacts, but those of a government whose nearly every act keeps prices of labor and of many inputs above market clearing levels. That will artificially encourage displacement by AI.

The incoming Donald Trump administration should rewrite the Obama AI reports in time for the next CES, focusing on the federal government role in disincentivizing employment and ensuring that tomorrow’s technologists and mainline industry and service sectors can expand it. There’s no getting around that jobs are already a cost for employers, and too many in government bureaus are “employed” doing things that interfere with actual employment of others.

Modern society does enable leisure, and future society will enable leisure in ways not imaginable, as things dear now become super cheap. Most are freed from dawn-to-sundown labor; freed from hours washing clothing and diapers. Perhaps we need a Kardashian Index to compare one era to another, since, with innovation, more becomes available with less time required to earn it. The old Econ 101 distinction between necessities vs. luxuries gets glossed over sometimes, but implies boundless wants to fill. People want a hardwood floor and a pool and all the other things on HGTV; but next an elevator and a jet. But this all depends upon a free economy, and a government that understands it.

Electric power is just a century old, yet many have no idea how to survive without it. Smartphones are just a few years old, yet the same is true. I expect our descendants will be equally devoted to their beloved AI.

The government lacks the kinds of statistics that show that the individual of modest income today is a millionaire when he or she goes back to 1979 (See Andy Kessler’s “Congrats, You’re a Billionaire”). In an AI-saturated world, Ready Player One-style virtual reality immersion might be how some burn up their days. That will be OK with some, not all. The main thing is that a world with ability to produce and replicate physical goods and afford three squares so cheaply would be one prepared to move on to the next stages of exploration into the oceans and poles, creating settlements on the moon, mining asteroids, interplanetary travel (not interstellar, though).

Or, perhaps even better, building the machines and AI to do all that. But who will bother, if they’re collecting a government check while plugged into VR.

The big-government, universal basic income response to AI is at odds with the tech sector’s fundamental optimism. Beware!

Originally posted at Forbes.com.