Friday, April 14, 2023

How Important are Humans?

    When I was an undergraduate, I worked part time as a cashier at a convenience store on campus. This job wasn't particularly exciting, I spent a lot of time doing sudoku puzzles and secretly studying, but it funded my weekends and summers. The job of a cashier is a simple loop function. For each item the customer has, scan the item and then place it into a bag. At the end of this, the customer swipes their credit card and pays for the items. Then, the cashier looks the customer in the eye and says "have a good one." The hardest part of the job is avoiding any sort of social awkwardness. 

    Self-checkout systems have replaced many cashiers. Soon, stores will likely rely on computer vision and many items won't even need bar codes (why does the box of Frosted Flakes need a barcode? The camera can just see the product and debit its monetary value to from your shopping account when you leave). The real question is, would I prefer to have a human or an AI responsible for checking me out of a grocery store? Honestly, I do not care at all either way. If every single cashier was replaced by an AI that used computer vision to run this same loop function (for each item assign the cash value to a receipt that must be paid) that would be fine with me. Why is this important? Because we must determine where exactly humans will fit when AI takes over 90% of the jobs.

    I had an argument recently about AI art. The opposing claim was the AI art will never really be valuable. The Mona Lisa is valuable not because it is particularly stunning, but because of the human artist and human vision behind the work. I had another argument about generative AI writing books. The opposing claim was the people would pay a premium for books written by humans, as a book written by an AI doesn't have the same artistic vision/meaning. As an example, we watch humans play chess and would never care about AIs playing chess. Here is the problem with all of this: if an AI writes a book that is substantially better than what humans are putting out, I am buying that book. Even if AI is only in the top 1% of human authors in terms of quality, I am reading that book before I am reading the 99% of human authors. Some people will pay for American-made products, but most default to the cheapest option made in China. If Germany makes amazing cars using an automated assembly line, the consumer will probably buy that instead of buying less amazing cars made by a team of humans. Yes, the social aspect of human to human interaction is important, but behind the lens of a screen, we will soon scarcely be able to tell. AI will have the capability to be extremely nice and incredibly helpful, better in most ways than the grumpy college cashier just there for the paycheck.

    I think a lot of people miss the point of generative AI. Yes, maybe people will have a preference to read poetry written by humans. Given that AI will probably become really, really good and human-like at writing poems, how will we even know if the human that claims to write poetry doesn't just use AI? Also, if the AI poetry is absolutely beautiful, why would I ever read a human's work again? Personally, if AI starts creating sequels to amazing human movies that I know and love and these films are in the same artistic style and just as high quality, I may never watch a human made movie again. Why would I?

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