Artificial Intelligence: Is It for Real, and Need We Be Concerned?

Oct. 20, 2014

If you’ve seen the movie, Ben Hur, starring Charlton Heston, you may remember the scene aboard the galley where the Roman navy commander explained to the miserable group of slaves awaiting battle while chained at their oars: “We keep you alive to serve this ship.”

For certain it’s a different time and place. Besides, it’s only a movie: “So what’s it got to do with us?” you ask, until you stop to consider that, given the startling advances taking place in machine technology and artificial intelligence (AI), we stand a chance of facing a fate similar to that of the oarsmen in their service to an inanimate creation. Except that instead of members of another branch of the human race, here the overseers are self-directing robots whose self-perpetuating intellect requires only the most menial ministrations of humans to tend to their corporal functions.

Master everything from OSHA regulations, to high-tech safety equipment in this FREE Special Report: Construction Safety Topics That Can Save Lives. Download it now!

“Hogwash,” you say, “humans will always be in charge.” True, perhaps, but maybe not without a deeper understanding on our role in achieving and then maintaining control of the awesome forces at our doorstep. When you consider what’s possible today, and then image what is almost certain to evolve by mid-century, you better be concerned. Science fiction? Think again.

Autonomous equipment has found its way into military arsenals around the world, a trend that will accelerate with each passing year. Drones, we are told, require a human interface to act, but how long before we base our decisions on their vision of reality rather than our own? And how long before civilian offshoots of these systems begin to determine what’s best for us”¦and at what point does it come to pass that rather than being in the driver’s seat, so to speak, we’re responding to their commands?

As much as you and I might deplore the thought, there is ample evidence that the day of the driverless auto is close at the doorstep, and once these automatons begin to be deployed, the die will have been cast for their eventual takeover of personal mobility. Without doubt the change will usher in dramatic increases in transportation efficiencies and safety, but equally without doubt, our freedoms of choice and action are bound to suffer.

You don’t have to spend a lot of time in line awaiting your turn to order your favorite quickie burger to recognize that for a large portion of our population calculators have replaced mental mathematic computations. Similarly, our language faces the onslaught of a totally new lexicon suited to mobile devices in which once broad avenues of communication fall prey to small bits of iconography and the substitution of letter chunks.

IMHO  :o(

So what’s this have to do with dirt moving?

Stop and think about the last time you actually put pencil to paper to do a business plan or even assess “what if” options? If it came to devising a grading plan from scratch, could you do so without software designed to handle the task? Ditto determining and maintaining grade without all the software and control systems?  Sure, you’re still close enough to the hands-on way of doing things that going back to the old way might not be too much of a stretch. But how about your new operators who lack your hands-on experience? What’s in their experience toolbox?

It seems to me we’ve entered an arena in which so many choices abound that avoiding those that don’t lead into a dead end or worse becomes more difficult daily. And so it is with robotics and AI, particularly since the validation of their superiority is in the hands of…well, how about AI or one of its offshoots.

I read recently where Toyota, an early adopter of robotics in its auto manufacturing process scaled back its use of some of its robots. Why? Because the company saw increasing evidence that production efficiency suffered from the loss of human interaction with the process. Because of this loss of contact it was quite some time before managers took action to bring people back into the loop. In a small sense the machine had become the boss.

Add Grading & Excavation Contractor Weekly to  your newsletter preferences and keep up with the latest articles on grading and excavation: construction equipment, insurance, materials, safety, software, and trucks and trailers.    

Toyota’s latest strategy has two main aspects. First, it wants to make sure that workers truly understand the work they’re doing instead of feeding parts into machines and being helpless when one breaks down. Second, it wants to figure out ways to increase the quality of its processes and make them more efficient in the long run. The company determined that automation led to too many average workers and not enough skilled and master craftsmen. Toyota’s course correction is in line with the concept of human capital in which the jobs and economic advantages of the future will go to those who can work with and improve increasingly intelligent machines.

In the days ahead, you and I may not have much control over those agents of change that will have tremendous impacts on the world in which we live and do business, but we can certainly control how they affect us and our workers. How? By maintaining contact with the principles that have formed the basis for human action since the concept of industry was born. No matter the tools, ours is a people business and, in the final analysis, people are the capital of our success.