Jack Covert Selects

Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

August 27, 2015


Jerry Kaplan discusses the dangers of artificial intelligence and how to prevent them from becoming a dystopic reality.

Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Jerry Kaplan, Yale University Press, 256 pages, $35.00, Hardcover, August 2015, ISBN 9780300213553

The algorithm that determines which ad appears on a webpage now takes more computing power than it took to land a man on the moon. The space race that put us there is, incidentally, what inspired Jerry Kaplan to get into computer science.

Before the “bulging bankrolls” of venture capitalists beckoned him to Silicon Valley for three decades, serial technology entrepreneur Kaplan began his career as a researcher at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence (AI) lab. And, rather than “quietly fade into [his] dotage,” that is where he has now returned. It is a different place today, one of specialization given to “elegant algorithms and clever demos” that he feels lacks the common mission of its earlier days, one that can no longer see the forest for the trees. So he began teaching a course on the history and philosophy of AI, and when he dug into these issues, he “became acutely aware of some serious issues on the horizon.” He now believes the “brilliant and dedicated people in the Stanford AI lab” and many like them in academia, research centers, and corporations across the world are working on “the twentieth century moral equivalent of the Manhattan Project.”


And, like the staff of the supersecret project to develop the atom bomb, only a few are cognizant of the breathtaking potential of their work to transform lives and livelihoods, right down to altering our concept of who we are and our proper place in the universe. It’s one thing to make a cute little robot that reads names and addresses, then tootles down the hall delivering intramural mail, but quite another when incrementally more capable versions of this technology operate our farms, manage our pension funds, hire and fire workers, select which news stories we read, scan all our information for subversive ideas, and fight our wars.

We began this month’s Jack Covert Selects series with Humans Are Underrated, which looked at this issue from a perspective of a business journalist—one of the best, Senior Editor at Large for Fortune Geoff Colvin. Jerry Kaplan comes at it from an AI researcher/entrepreneur’s angle in his new book Humans Need Not Apply, and that perspective makes a huge difference.

Kaplan first dives into the history of AI and explains why most of what we think we know about computers is wrong, and then wrangles with some tricky legal issues that will arise as they get smarter, such as how you hold autonomous systems responsible for their actions. This is an important consideration, as we’ve already seen such systems responsible for nearly crashing the stock market, and we will one day have to decide when and how they decide to crash our cars. (Kaplan imagines a scenario in which a self driving car has to make the decision between saving its driver or a bus full of school children.)

But the biggest concern is an economic one.

In the chapter entitled “Take This Job and Automate It,” he compares the shift in the labor market to global warming. It’s not the event itself that is dangerous, it’s the speed at which it occurs, leaving us too little time to adapt to the changes and causing mass extinctions in the case of global warming, and mass unemployment in the case of automation. He asks us to imagine that the agricultural revolution—which dropped the percentage of people working in the fields from 80 percent in the early 1800s to just 1.5 percent today—took only two decades instead of two centuries. It is a “similarly tectonic shift” he argues that “looms ahead,” one that creates “the spectacle of widespread poverty against the backdrop of escalating wealth and comfort” as we experience an escalation of “the two great scourges of the modern developed world—persistent unemployment and increasing income inequality.” He writes:


We’re about to discover that Karl Marx was right: the inevitable struggle between capital (whose interests are promoted by management) and labor is a losing proposition for workers. What he didn’t fully appreciate is that we’re all workers, even managers, doctors, and college professors. … So the conflict he characterizes between poorly paid workers and highly compensated managers—people against people—cuts the wrong way. The real problem is that the wealthy will need few, if any, people to work for them at all.

But the fact that machines are putting more and more people out of work, and will likely continue to do so, is only half the problem. Machines rather than people are also increasingly populating our financial markets. In the “Flash Crash” of May 6, 2010 I referenced earlier, competing computer systems nearly decimated the stock market—a computing error that took the SEC six months to find (and their findings are still controversial). What prevented a complete collapse was the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which “stopped all trading for a fleeting five seconds” and put an end to the fight between the “rampaging programs” that were bringing down the market. That very same Chicago Mercantile Exchange recently closed its futures trading pits. Those floors now silent and devoid of human activity—algorithms and machines make the trades behind the scenes. And if we’re not careful and deliberate in how we advance the automation in our economy, much more of our boisterous and jubilant commercial life will go quiet.


As bizarre as it sounds, the future will be a struggle of assets against people, as the resources accumulated by our creations serve no constructive purpose or are put to no productive use. As I will explain, the so-called 1 percent may be the beneficiaries of these trends today, but without some careful precautions as to who—or what—may own assets, there’s a real possibility that the 1 percent will shrink to the 0 percent … The economy we know today, as difficult to imagine as it may be, is in danger of motoring on without us, throwing ever more of us overboard. Will the last human dismissed please turn off the lights? Actually, no need—they can turn themselves off.

To solve the problem of unemployment, he proposes the “job mortgage.” To ensure we all remain actively involved in our economic future rather than allowing machines to determine our fate, he proposes an “objective, government certified measure of corporate ownership” called the public benefit index (or PBI) to ensure broader participation and ownership in an economy that will “distribute the benefits of future growth more widely.”

Geoff Colvin's Humans Are Underrated is the more proper business book in that it will help you think about the skills you need to develop and strengthen to succeed in the years ahead. Humans Need Not Apply is more philosophical; the problems and solutions that are discussed are larger scale, societal, and not so easy to wrap your head around. But because of that the book will stretch your thinking about the future and consider new possibilities. And whether you’re an entrepreneur, industrialist, or simply an individual wondering what kind of work will be left for you to you, entering into that larger frame of mind is an important part of the work to come.

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