Many decades ago Bill Gates indicated that Goldman Sachs was Microsoft’s biggest competitor. The statement probably sounded odd to some since Microsoft was a lucrative GS client, not to mention that the two commercial giants were in different businesses. Except that Gates was talking about a different kind of competition.
Specifically, Goldman was a formidable Microsoft foe in the competition for human capital. Both companies wanted to hire the top athletes as it were, and Goldman was winning the services of more than a few of the kinds of employees Gates coveted.
It’s more than obvious, but it's worth saying what's true: humans drive all progress. They’re the ultimate resource. In that sense Gates was stating the obvious. The best corporations more often than not have the best workers. In sports this truth is maybe more accessible. College coaches recruit tirelessly, while professional teams scout and court free agents tirelessly given the correlation between talent and success on the field or court.
All of this and more came to mind while reading a Wall Street Journal opinion piece from this week by Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, and Daniel Huttenlocher. They wrote with not a little fear that AI, though “a product of human ingenuity,” is beginning to exceed human genius. These machines or “robots” “perceive aspects of the world faster than we do, differently from the way we do, and in some cases, in ways we don’t understand.” Among other examples, the authors cite how machines can not only beat the world’s best chess players, but can do so while instantaneously re-inventing how the cerebral game is played. In a medical sense, supercomputers come up with ways to kill bacteria that humanity, at least in its present form, cannot. And these computers reach these advances at a tiny fraction of the cost.
No doubt the authors recognize the immense promise of machines capable of achieving remarkable advance, but there was some hesitance in their piece. This included calls for humans to quickly find a “middle course” for the machines with the health and welfare of humans top of mind. The view here is that their worry is overdone.
To see why, consider something as basic (in hindsight at least) as the discovery of coal as a source of energy. Its use was viewed in productivity terms as the equivalent of each worker adding twenty able-bodied assistants. This was coal. Imagine what the smartphone does for our productivity, or the automobile, or driverless cars, or just Google. Thanks to these capable aids that are increasingly common, our human capabilities continue to grow.
Looked at in terms of AI that can not only think, but think in all new ways, it’s staggering to contemplate the bright future that’s ahead of us. Kissinger et al view with trepidation what should have us ecstatic. Think back to Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, and countless other small and large businesses to see why.
As is, we free humans have been able to create a remarkable world defined by soaring living standards. Imagine what we’ll be able to achieve if machines not only enhance our productivity, but increasingly work with us. Our capacity for advance will be wholly redefined. Precisely because machines will be able to outthink us in all manner of ways means that cures for paralysis, pancreatic cancer, and heart disease will likely be in our grasp sooner rather than later.
As humans we only have so much time in each day and week to work. Imagine then, what our work product will look like if machines that don’t require breaks, sleep, free weekends, and vacations are working alongside us in our businesses, large and small. It’s a sign that so much of what threatens life or limits living standards will sooner rather than later be within our ability to alter.
Some will logically ask what we will do if machines make it possible for us to divide up work with machines that think like us, or per the authors, machines that think differently or better than we do. The answer is simple: we will do what we’ve always done as millions and billions of new human “hands” have entered the workforce domestically, and around the world: we will specialize. New labor entrants don’t “take our jobs” as much as they propel us into work that is most associated with our unique skills and intelligence.
Put more positively, a future of brilliant AI promises a work future that won’t feel at all like work. It won’t for the same reason that Kissinger likely never associated his work with “hard labor.” He didn’t because Kissinger was engaging in the kind of toil that reinforced his unique genius. Kissinger got to specialize. Enhanced machines mean many, many more of us will get to do as Kissinger did, along with Schmidt and Huttenlocher.
And we will because the rise of the capable, thinking machine signals a surge in the availability of the resources that we call capital. With this surge will come cures for so much that kills us, transportation innovations that will render the airplane yesterday’s news, technological advances that will reduce the internet to the proverbial dial phone, and work options that will massively expand the definition of genius.
In short, it’s a beautiful world ahead. No “middle ground” to speak of. Let’s not empower politicians to limit a future that is presently unimaginable for all the grandeur it promises.