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Regular version of the site

Artificial Intelligence Society

Robots to Replace Humans?

Cultural Evolution, a new book by Ronald Inglehart, American sociologist, professor at the University of Michigan and academic supervisor of the HSE Laboratory for Comparative Social Research, is currently being prepared for publication in Russia. Russian readers will be the first to read the prominent scholar's book, as its Russian translation will come out before the American original. The Russian translation of the book has been prepared by the Liberal Mission Foundation and the LCSR.

 Ronald Inglehart,
cademic Supervisor Laboratory for Comparative Social Research

The book features a discussion of how increased prosperity and a growing sense of sense of security have changed people's values ​​and behaviour. The author focuses in particular on the growing inequality in the era of emerging artificial intelligence. Even today, machines are replacing workers on a large scale, and the middle class is likely to be next to compete with artificial intelligence. Will humans still have a place in the labour market – or should we prepare for the era of robots dominating the planet? Here's Professor Inglehart's take on this, which he shares with IQ.hse.ru.

— What's your book's main idea?

— The book presents a theory of modernisation, exploring changes which have occurred amidst rapid technological advancement and the emergence of artificial intelligence. When Karl Marx was writing his books, he was very perceptive, and his basic idea was that the transition from agrarian to industrial society changes almost everything. And he was right: there have been major changes in society, political and economic life.

But it was difficult then to foresee how huge the change would be. Harsh and exploitative at first, capitalism has evolved. Now the world is no longer changing in the way Marx had predicted. For example, industrialisation and then the post-industrial economy which is based on knowledge and services change the role of women profoundly. This is not immediately obvious.

The role of women is still changing, and the process of women's emancipation will continue, while gender equality will grow. These changes have also led to a change of attitudes towards a number of other things, such as divorce, abortion and homosexuality.  

— But why, in the long history of human progress, have these things become obvious only in the 21st century?

— Throughout history, almost all traditional societies and religions have emphasised a set of norms promoting high fertility, encouraging women to stay at home and not pursue a career. No sex outside marriage, no sex before marriage – it was all aimed at producing children within a family that is capable of raising them. A woman left alone with children in those days would have hardly any opportunity to make a living – probably her child would die and perhaps the woman too.

In traditional societies that have survived, women were mostly 'baby-machines'. In that context, if you only lived 35 to 40 years and had six or seven children, by the time you have produced and raised them – that's it, you don't have a career. In a society that lived at a subsistence level, with high infant mortality because of low levels of medical technology and sanitation and low life expectancy, the mandate of producing enough children to just survive dictated a set of norms: you don't have abortion, you don't have homosexuality, which was stigmatised, you don't have sex outside of marriage.

That set of norms has changed profoundly. Women no longer need to produce 6 to 7 children. We have very low infant mortality in countries such as Russia, Sweden or the U.S. We still need to have slightly more than two children per family – about 2.1 children per woman is enough. Women today are free in their choice regarding children and careers.

— In your opinion, is there resistance to gender equality in developed countries?

— Japan, for example, is a modern society, but they are very resistant to women having careers once married. The Japanese culture resists integrating women into society. Women in Japan have always served men and rarely held positions of authority. But even Japan is changing, although it's an example of a culture that has emphasised traditional roles for women in spite of modernising very effectively in many ways. In contrast, countries like Sweden tend to be more open to women having careers and taking positions of authority.

— Where do you see Russia in this context?

— Russia is between Sweden and Japan: not as advanced as Sweden but far more advanced than Japan. I would think half of the students at Russian universities are women. This has changed as I can remember from my own life. When I was an undergraduate and started working, it used to be unusual for women to go to higher education. There were all kinds of questions about it. And now at the University of Michigan there are more women than men.

— How do you expect the institution of the family to transform in the context of growing freedom and changing roles of women in society?

— I don't think the family will disappear, even if it will no longer be the traditionally dominative institution. But I believe the family will persist for quite some time because humans have evolved to need care, cuddling and human contact. It's a basic human need. The family has changed a whole lot. There will be more same-sex families, and society will be increasingly accepting of them.

— Cultural Evolution is the title of your book. What do you mean by that?

— Industrialisation has reached a high level of productivity. Since World War II in a few advanced countries, such as Germany, Sweden and Japan, people grew up taking survival for granted. That's a huge deal, as throughout most of history, survival was uncertain. Back in the 1930s, even in the US, the richest country in the world, people starved during the Great Depression. This meant that you had a life strategy to maximize your chances of not starving, getting economic security and protection of your resources.

People were suspicious of foreigners and formed tight cohesive unions, where you had to conform to group norms. It was ‘our values against their values’, and you followed a strong authoritarian leader, whatever your tradition or culture. This is what happens in any society under threat, and most societies have been threatened for most of history.

Since World War II, that has changed. This is a profound change which is transforming the world. If you grow up taking survival for granted you're much more open to foreigners. You are less likely to refer to the strong leader who tells you what to do. Your need to conform to others’ norms has weakened – conformism may be necessary when you're fighting for survival, but now if you're different from other people you might just trust yourself and have freedom of choice with your own life. People sacrifice it when they're struggling for survival, but if survival is taken for granted, there's more tolerance to diversity and women having jobs and changing social norms. This is cultural evolution.

— When did it emerge?  

— In the late 60's, at the time of student protests. It took about 20 years for people born during World War II to surface to visibility. They realised that their values were very different from those of earlier generations raised in the times of Great Depression and World War II.

— Even now, hunger is still a problem for many countries. How big do you think the cultural gap between societies is today?

— Indeed, transformations initially concerned a small minority of the global population, while most of the world was still starving and worrying about survival. It's been changing rapidly in the last decades, with countries such as China, India and Indonesia escaping poverty. But it takes time after conditions change before you get a generation with a different worldview.

The desire to choose how to live your life is not just a Western idea.  Human beings if they're not starving want to have a choice with their own lives. It's a universal quality.

— In your book, you write about a new kind of insecurity. What is that?

— Now we are moving into a different set of changes linked with what I call ‘artificial intelligence society’. They are only beginning to be recognised. Part of this book analyses this phenomenon. It's very recent and still emerging, therefore I cannot obviously guarantee the future. I can only speculate, but some of the changes are clear.

One of the first changes affects the working-class. They used to be powerful: the Labour Party in Britain won elections. The working class has since declined and become a minority in advanced societies due to automation. Countries like China and India are still moving into industrialisation, but in Germany, Sweden, U.S. and Japan most of the working class have been replaced by robots.

Workers have lost their job security, and labour unions are weak. This is one of the very serious consequences of automation for the working class.    

— Should we anticipate a similar fate for the middle class?

— Yes, It is taking over the middle class. Professions requiring expensive education are increasingly automated and replaced by artificial intelligence. The law profession for example has always been secure and well paid – but now many of the processes can be done faster, more efficiently and more accurately by artificial intelligence than by someone with a law degree.

In recent years, 40% of people with law degrees have been taking jobs which do not require legal training. Law school enrolment has recently dropped because young people are becoming aware of this.

Many other fields like journalism have been taken over by artificial intelligence, which can assimilate huge volumes of information, summarise them and write news stories. And you don't even realise that they've been written by computers.

Medicine is also being automated. In the U.S., medicine used to be a highly respected and secure profession. But now artificial intelligence can read x-rays and diagnose them better than a radiologist who has been trained for 20 years. This has literally been tested. In the U.S., being a radiologist requires four years of college, four years of medical school, six to seven years of training as a specialist radiologist, and then you can make huge amounts of money – except when you are replaced by artificial intelligence... People are only beginning to become aware of this.  

There is not yet a computer program that I know of capable of writing a book about cultural evolution better than I can. But it is perfectly conceivable that 10 years from now you'll get a better book than this one from artificial intelligence. And its translation into Russian that took several months will be done in an hour. Any profession, even highly-trained ones, might be replaced.

And then your life strategies suggesting that if you are an MD in the U.S., you're guaranteed to be in the upper-middle class are not true any more. Secure jobs are disappearing because big corporations can use artificial intelligence instead of industrial workers, doctors, lawyers, professors, journalists and pretty much anyone.

— What do you think of the idea that people could partially become robots, e.g. by having computer implants?

— One helpful thought is that computer implants can be as smart as robots and need a human carrier. But now artificial intelligence thinks for itself and learns on its own extremely fast. It's very efficient and humans have no place. In the long run, I see a huge challenge here. This is not Donald Trump's analysis of how Mexicans are coming to steal our jobs as it's not about Russians or Chinese or Muslims. This is not really the problem. Most of the job loss is because of automation. Artificial intelligence is way more dangerous than the Mexicans.

— What do you think awaits humanity in the future? 

— I don't want to sound like science fiction and I am not saying what future will happen. What I'm saying is that there is a potential future that we need to pay attention to. It is a huge challenge how to cope with artificial intelligence, how people can stay in control.

One warning that I might give is to be kind to animals to set a good example for robots so they may be kind to us. I really hope that it's a foolish warning. But there is a challenge.      

— How much time do you think humanity has to find a solution?

— Much less time than you think. Serious changes may occur within 20 years. The processing speed of computers doubles every 18 months, while humans change over thousands of years very gradually. But that I'm hopeful that humans will find solutions. Humans are very clever. We must think carefully about this. And going back to contradictions between East and West – I don't think there's a question of any such contradictions. Both East and West will face exactly the same problems with artificial intelligence.

Author: Marina Selina, September 06, 2017