Talks of new technologies stealing our jobs are not a 21st-century thing. One could say the kickstart of unemployment fears was the Luddist movement during the industrial revolution in the UK, but we find evidence of technological unemployment even in Aristotle or during the Romans! For instance, in the 1st Century AD, Emperor Vespasian refused to implement a technology that cut the costs of transportation since this could affect employment in the Empire.
Let’s fast forward to the 20th century: the world already witnessed two industrial revolutions and was about to enter the third one. Technological unemployment is a hot topic, so much that, when talking about the prospects of work in the future, John Maynard Keynes foresees a future where machines would take over all labour force by 2030 (that is one hundred years from the day he’s writing) in Economic Possibility for our Grandchildren.
However, Keynes does not mean this in the classic dystopian nuance we see nowadays. Rather, he implicitly argues that since much of the labour will be outsourced to machines, humans will be forced to deal with the nothingness and the boredom of having nothing to do. The working day will shorten to 3 hours at most, with nothing else to fill the day up. The only activity left to humans will be the activity of the mind. In short, creative and arty tasks.
We didn’t have to wait until 2030 to achieve Keyne’s vision, although we still have to work our days off. However, there is own thing that Keynes did not foresee: that machines now have the potential to ‘steal’ our creativity too.
As of today the human mind and its unmatched skill to be sentient and creative still seems to be a safe haven. AI developed dramatically in the last years, but it’s still confined in the role of a virtual assistant. It provided us with new, amazing tools artists can use to improve their work and cut production times, but it cannot match the human mind and its creativity.
Many have tried, though…
The world of art is increasingly interested in the use of new technologies. Artists and programmers now work together to market the newest forms of art, whether they are produced solely by a machine — as the Portrait of Edmond Belamy, generated by GAN (Generative Adversarial Network) and sold at Christie’s for $432,500 — or with human artists exploring the plethora of possibilities they have — as in the case of Re:Humanism Art Prize, where exhibited artworks ranged from a memoir imbued in a scent created by an AI to dancers guided by a galvanic vestibular stimulator for their performance.
In both cases, the AI is an instrument to expand the creative possibilities humans have with the use of machines. Particularly, as Hugo Caselles-Dupré, member of the Obvious collective, said about GAN and its artwork:
“We found that portraits provided the best way to illustrate our point, which is that algorithms are able to emulate creativity.”
The AI here, thus, did not necessarily create the artwork. Rather, it emulated the gargantuan bulk of information the Obvious collective fed it to come up with an emulation of what has been in all the history of art.
Deep down, this makes a lot of sense. For instance, another piece of art called My Artificial Muse — presented for Re:Humanism by Mario Klingemann, Albert Barqué-Duran, and Marc Marzenit — saw a human artist copy an artwork digitally formed by an AI. However, is this really a case of emulating the virtual creative work of a machine, or is it the recycling of the human programmers’ work to code the algorithm the machine followed to create the piece of art?
Do humans really think outside the box?
The usual argument we stumble upon when dealing with this topic is that a machine cannot ever be creative. It can only elaborate on the bits and data a human gives it. This can be true, sure, but don’t humans do the same broadly speaking?
We do have a creative flair in the strictest sense, but humans think and work on a set of basic rules, in the form of letters, numbers, or even canons of beauty — although these periodically change. Humans have the ability to mix these rules to create new stuff, to adapt, and to change. But machines can too now, apparently.
Rather, what AIs and computers are not able to do at the moment is to have a contextual vision of why they’re doing what they’re doing. Call it consciousness, or the simple skill to draw inspiration from the environment and the interaction with other humans, but a machine cannot in any way know what it’s doing. The Pfeiffer Report by Adobe on the impact of technology in the creative industry makes this quite clear: what differentiates the way we process our set of rules from how a machine does it is that humans have a contextual vision of what’s going on and the direction to take to achieve the creative goal. Technology only helps to achieve this faster and more efficiently.
Humans have the necessary emotional connection to feel the customers’ needs and run an agency more proficiently than a machine ever would. From a purely commercial point of view, humans are necessary to ensure control over the mechanisms of creation of digital materials like videos, ads, and whatnot. Not because of algorithms for data-driven videos or personalised ads are necessarily faulty. Rather, it hits the psychological necessity to have a sentient being as a point of reference.
But then, what is creativity and will machine ever be able to achieve it?
What is creativity is a too wide argument to be sketched in this article. I would not make justice to all the studies made on the topic if I just sketched a quick blurb of what the concept of creativity is.
However, it is not unlikely that we will eventually — at a point in history — design a creative robot, whatever notion of creativity we accept. One day, someone might easily come up with a machine that can create a piece of art from scratch, without a pool to draw data from.
Just think of this: if one asked a random person what they envisioned for the future just 50 years ago, perhaps they would never picture a ‘smart’ machine algorithmically coded to create, say, every possible musical melody to tackle copyright lawsuits. How can we then not think that one day we’ll have to deal with something we don’t deem possible today?
The main problem here does not lie in whether machines can replace creatives and artists now. Rather, when this will be a tangible option, how will we deal with this huge societal transformation and how will we tackle potential, widespread unemployment for those who seek a creative career?
Hence, we’re back to technological unemployment. Obviously, the widest used argument is to hinder AI development. However, this not only would meet the opposition of innovators and tech companies, but it is also impossible to apply, since the human will to progress cannot be silenced.
Rather, we should not focus on the destruction of progress. We should, instead, focus on the role humans have in the supervision of algorithms and machines to avoid biases and potential danger. The struggle to re-set humans at the centre of the fast technological development is a societal — and humanistic — struggle, which encompasses a wide range of subjects, from ethics to law to sociology.
What I mean by this, is exactly what was very thoroughly addressed by Iyad Rahwan in its paper on the concept of Society-in-the-Loop, although extended on the interrelation humans and machines have in the creative industry.
Humans will always a place in society as long as they will fight to stay at the centre of all their tasks and goals. That is advancing through time not for the progress’s sake, but for humans’.