Suppose you go on a date and are faced with that perennially tricky question: does the other person fancy me? The answer is not always easy to gauge, particularly if wishful thinking clouds your judgment. Now imagine that, fortunately in this case, a solution is literally at hand. You discreetly reach into your pocket to check a device that scans the other person and tells you if you are in luck. No need to fear the potential awkwardness of rejection. For Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, this is not the stuff of science fiction. As he reflects in his new book, Average is Over, artificial intelligence is advancing so fast that such a scenario is probably not far off.
Of course, the implications of artificial intelligence go far beyond dating. As early as 1997, the IBM Deep Blue machine beat Garry Kasparov, a chess grandmaster and arguably the greatest ever player, in a chess match. Now it is possible to download free chess programs that can decisively beat even the best human player. It is true that chess is, in some respects, relatively easy for computers to play, as it has clearly defined and unambiguous rules. But, Cowen argues, it will not be long before computers can manage trickier tasks. Google, for instance, has already devised a driverless car that in many situations operates better than if a human were at the wheel.
Cowen’s main concern in Average is Over is the impact technological advances could have on society. In particular, he argues that they will lead to even more social polarisation. The 15 per cent or so of the population who are adept at using the new technology will thrive, he argues, while the remaining 85 per cent will fall behind. He contends this shift will bring with it the end of the American dream, which, traditionally, means most people attaining the wealth and luxury of the middle classes. Social mobility will fall, he argues, as the boundary between the elite and the masses becomes firmer. Nor is it likely, he continues, that there will be any mass uprisings as a result of this new polarised society. Since the average age of the population has risen over the years, it is likely society will begin to view the bifurcation of America in quiescent style.
Google’s driverless cars are a prime example of the type of transformative technology to which Cowen attaches so much importance. He acknowledges they could allow people even more time to do what they want to do, including working or simply relaxing. On the other hand, they could put a large number of people who make a living out of driving, such as truck drivers, out of work.
Education is another area where Cowen sees advanced technology having a profound effect. Traditional teaching methods could be replaced by online instruction. This trend is already becoming apparent with such services as Coursera and Khan Academy. Cowen concedes that online teaching is not as good as the best face-to-face learning, but it has the important advantage of low costs. There is a parallel with the success of McDonald’s, where the food is way below the standards of the finest restaurants but, due to low costs, the hamburger chain can still thrive. However, what Cowen doesn’t acknowledge is that, while traditional teachers are likely to suffer as a result of the move to online learning, a new breed of coaches, highly skilled in motivational techniques, could prosper. This is a skill that cannot easily be delegated to machines. Hong Kong already has glamorous celebrity tutors, called ‘tutor kings’, who are good-looking and photogenic. Some reputedly earn as much as $1.5million (about £900,000) a year.