Between Science Fiction and Real Fears: PBS ‘Cyberwork and the American Dream’ a Must-See☆☆☆

Science fiction has become a major genre in our society where we use WiFi every day and kids no longer use analog clocks and you’re more likely to use GPS to figure out your car routes than a map, and through science fiction we see our technophobic nightmares. That is nothing new. Even before everyone had a computer and computers could talk in real life, we were afraid of haunted elevators and cars. Now we’re afraid of crazy computer viruses and computers programmed to helping us killing us instead. In the PBS “Cyberwork and the American Dream,” the nightmares and fears about artificial intelligence is explored.  The easy answer is that culture must change, but we’re talking about many different cultures in multicultural America.

Not all of the experts are US-born in this PBS documentary. Perhaps the most famous talking head here is the 56-year-old Russian-born chess master, Garry Kasparov. Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, he is from a country that was once part of the Soviet Union, but is currently straddling Western Asia and Eastern Europe, like Turkey. The other is the 43-year-old London-born Andrew Ng ( 吳恩達).

At 22, Kasparov became the youngest ever World Chess Champion in 1985 and in 1997 was the first world chess champion to lose a chess match against a computer (the IBM Deep Blue).

Ng is a co-founder of Google Brain and the online-learning site, Coursera. Graduating from the Raffles Institution in Singapore (1992), he earned undergraduate degrees in computer science, statistics and economics from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania before going to MIT for his master’s. He then completed his PhD work at the University of California, Berkeley (2002).  Ng is currently an adjunct professor at the Stanford University.

In the documentary, we’re reminded that “Before the Industrial Revolution” there wasn’t much innovation. The first Industrial Revolution is celebrated by Steampunkery. The use of steam was a beginning, but the second Industrial Revolution began in 1870 when electricity made internal combustion engines and wireless communication possible.

Ng considers artificial intelligence “will change every single major industry. I think it is the new electricity.”

Artificial intelligence isn’t a new phrase; it was coined in 1955 by John McCarthy (1927-2011), a mathematician and computer scientist at Dartmouth who organized the first Artificial Intelligence conference in 1956. The movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still” which introduced a humanoid extraterrestrial named Klaatu with his eight-foot robot Gort, came out in 1951. Clips from that movie as well as others like the infamous Hal from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

What movies might portray and what history tells us that that invention can help and free human being workers from drudgery, they also result in a displacement of workers. The washing machine mean that clothes washing was quicker and required fewer people and fewer hours, but those employed in the great houses for wealthy families lost that type of work.

Kasropov notes, “Jobs have been killed off for centuries by machines.”

Think of the legendary John Henry competing in against the steam-powered rock drilling machine to win, but only to die soon after.

When the car came around, horse dealers and breeders lost out because people didn’t ask for a faster horse, they wanted a car, businessman Mark Cuban comments. And then cars eventually became less expensive and more common place. Once telephone operators were employed by the thousands, but that work force has been significantly cut back. Today, travel agents are a downsized occupation with the advent of travel websites.  In our time, think of the size of a mainframe computer in the 1960s to the kind of small computers we have today and even then, much mayhem and innovation comes from the further development of the computer even though Ferris Bueller complains, “I asked for a car and I got a computer.”

Bueller, a fictional character, had an inventive mind, and this documentary tries to assure us that the inventive nature of US citizens is what drove progress and an industrial revolution but that’s the white middle-class experience. For minorities and women,  education was denied by separate but equal legislation and a glass ceiling.

I was surprised to learn that the US patents office allowed African Americans and women to file patents even before either could vote. One African American patented the dry cleaning process, enabling him to earn enough money to buy his family’s freedom.  The patent story, like the cheery robot named Pepper, is meant to assuage our science-fiction fueled fears of artificial intelligence.

In the pep talk portion the documentary assures viewers that the inventiveness that drove US citizens on every level will prevail in a new society where one can’t relax after four years in college, but must be continually learning. Certainly for minorities and women that sit-back-and-relax feeling was likely rare when faced with stereotypes.

While it is unlikely evil sentient robots are anywhere on the horizon except in science fiction movie, there are more industries that will die. Companies like Kodak can quickly go from iconic to bankrupt.

With the pace of technology accelerating, we all have to keep learning. Ng says, “The most important ability in the future is the ability to keep on learning.” People need to be self-motivated to be life-long learners.

Cyberwork and the American Dream” originally broadcast on 11 April 2019 and is currently available online for streaming.

 

 

 

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