Artificial Intelligence vs. American Ingenuity

“’Made in America’ will never work as a slogan if you’re asking the consumer to pay more for a product made just as well, but more cheaply elsewhere. If you can’t make the product cheaper, you just have to make it better.” – Jake Bronstein

This bold pronouncement about one of the defining statements of American Industry is from the founder of Flint & Tinder, the makers of “luxuriously rugged yet refined premium men’s underwear.” Jake Bronstein is one of the more vocal advocates for American manufacturing, and his company is charting a different course forward. In an interview with FastCo, he argues that “you can’t make products in America that rely on pure labor. It has to be labor mixed with great design or excellent craftsmanship—labor mixed with something.” By starting with the advantages of cornering a quality niche, then expanding (the company now makes hoodies, jeans and other items), the company has built a following (thanks to a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign) and found a way to compete in the massive textile industry.

Another American company fighting for a slice of a massive pie is Warby Parker. Their pie? The $65 billion eyewear industry. Their edge in the fight? Shipping pairs of glasses to consumer at home, Zappos-level customer service (kudos for transparency), and affordable prices. Max Chafkin talks about how Warby Parker Sees the Future of Retail, and why a company that built its brand on being invited into customers’ homes is now venturing into retail. Their newest innovation is as old as retail itself, but it’s the path they started on that is having far-reaching consequences on our lives.

Warby Parker is one of a fleet of companies dominating our lives with same-day deliveries, shipments of snacks and monthly subscription services. The sum effect of all this convenience? What Lauren Smiley calls The Shut-in Economy, where convenience becomes synonymous with something more sinister. By having our every need dropped off at our doorstep, and not being bothered with such old-fashioned ideas as “cooking food” or “washing clothes” or doing things “ourselves”, those of us who are professionals are freed up to do more work, and those of us looking for work are put into jobs serving others. Smiley’s realization: “Huge income disparities allow upper-middle-class citizens to turn the rest of the workforce into their personal delivery network.” While these companies can create more jobs, they are employing people as grunts (orrabbits, if you prefer). In some instances, like deliveries, those jobs could soon be automated, and then a portion of the population is pushed out of even menial labor.

The coming wave of automation is already beginning to transform the way products are transported and delivered. Rather than viewing a trend toward automation as a benign threat, or one that we could coexist with, Scott Santens believes that Self-Driving Trucks Are Going to Hit Us like a Human Driven Truck. Why such a big impact? It gets complicated when we consider the effect of the lives of 3.5 million professional truckers alongside the small town economies that those truckers nourish. Then factor in self-driving cars (companies currently developing models: Apple, Uber, Google and Tesla), and how they might affect every business related to car ownership, and you get a sense of the potential shift’s magnitude. Santens argues that we need to implement a guaranteed minimum income now to offset the rampant job loss that could happen as we move toward automation.

Another writer tooting the basic income horn is Ben Schiller, who says Yes, Robots Really Are Going to Take Your Job and End the American Dream. That American Dream that Flint & Tinder are trying to keep alive with premium underwear?! Yes, the very same. Not only can machines already diagnose cancer, trade stocks on the market, flip burgers and write sports articles, they can create music. The issue is that with all of the tasks we’re asking machines to do, they don’t have to be perfect. They just need to be slightly better than us deeply flawed beings. In the case of truckers, their very human flaw is needing to sleep.

It’s no wonder Stephen Hawking (“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”) and Elon Musk (“With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon”) have tried to get us to pump our brakes on this acceleration towards AI and automation. The Economist looks at the capabilities of AI and machine’s ability to learn in Clever Computers: The Dawn of Artificial Intelligence, with a measured stance toward optimism, saying that as long as engineers include an off-switch, it’ll be all good. Their argument for said optimism is that AI “can already enhance human endeavour by complementing what people can do” and by continuing down that route, we stand to benefit.

So, naturally, the writers at How We Get to Next Let IBMs Robot Chef Tell Us What to Cook for a Week. You may remember IBM’s Watson from his starring roles on Jeopardy or you may have heard about his recent jaunt through healthcare, where he uses “his natural language, hypothesis generation, and evidence-based learning capabilities allow it to function as a clinical decision support system for use by medical professionals.” So it makes perfect sense that he would turn next to perfecting casseroles. It took Julia Child a few career moves before she found her calling, too.

Spend time with IBM Chef Watson, and you’ll find an inspired use for any ingredient that’s lingering around your house. “As part of its quest to develop cognitive systems, IBM explored whether a computer could enhance human creativity by designing a system that can create surprising yet flavorful recipe ideas no cookbook has ever seen. The project, known as cognitive cooking, demonstrated Watson’s ability to amplify human intelligence, generating ideas the world has never been imagined before.” Granted, there’s been some joy engineered into that description, and to Watson’s function as a whole, but you see how the skills and know-how you have in the culinary world, no matter how basic or advanced, could benefit from this perspective.

Embracing something more sizeable with the same endearing attitude, like, say, the potential loss of  millions of jobs, is more difficult than looking up Russian Celery Sandwich recipes. It becomes our challenge to stay alert as the world changes. To embrace the technologies available and take advantage of the systems those technologies enable. Make premium underwear. Become a superhuman computer-aide chef. It is up to our ingenuity to determine just how we can exist with artificial intelligence into the future.

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