Meet Duplex, your new assistant, courtesy of Google

Advances in natural language processing have enabled systems such as Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant or Cortana to be at the service of anyone owning a smartphone or a computer. Still, so far, none of these systems managed to cross the thin dividing line that would make us take them for humans. When we ask Alexa to play music or Siri do dial a telephone number, we know very well that we are talking with a computer and the replies of the systems would remind us, were we to forget that.

It was to be expected that, with the evolution of the technology, this type of interactions would become more and more natural, possibly reaching a point where a computer could impersonate a real human, taking us closer to the vision of Alan Turing, a situation where you cannot tell a human apart from a computer by simply talking to both.

In an event widely reported in the media, at the I/O 2018 conference, Google made a demonstration of Duplex, a system that is able to process and execute requests in specific areas, interacting in a very human way with human operators. While Google states that the system is still under development, and only able to handle very specific situations, you get a feeling that, soon enough, digital assistants will be able to interact with humans without disclosing their artificial nature.  You can read the Google AI blog post here, or just listen to a couple of examples, where Duplex is scheduling a haircut or making a restaurant reservation. Both the speech recognition system and the speech synthesis system, as well as the underlying knowledge base and natural language processing engines, operate flawlessly in these cases, anticipating a widely held premonition that AI systems will soon be replacing humans in many specific tasks.

Photo by Kevin Bhagat on Unsplash


European Commission releases communication on Artificial Intelligence

Today, April 25th, 2018, the European Commission released a communication entitled Artificial Intelligence for Europe, and a related press release, addressing what could become the European strategy for Artificial Intelligence.

The document states that “Like the steam engine or electricity in the past, AI is transforming our world, our society and our industry. Growth in computing power, availability of data and progress in algorithms have turned AI into one of the most strategic technologies of the 21st century.

The communication argues that “The EU as a whole (public and private sectors combined) should aim to increase this investment [in Artificial Intelligence] to at least EUR 20 billion by the end of 2020. It should then aim for more than EUR 20 billion per year over the following decade.” These values should be compared with the current value of 4-5 billion, spent in AI.

The communication also addresses some questions raised by the increased ability of AI systems to replace human jobs: “The first challenge is to prepare the society as a whole. This means helping all Europeans to develop basic digital skills, as well as skills which are complementary to and cannot be replaced by any machine such as critical thinking, creativity or management. Secondly, the EU needs to focus efforts to help workers in jobs which are likely to be the most transformed or to disappear due to automation, robotics and AI. This is also about ensuring access for all citizens, including workers and the self-employed, to social protection, in line with the European Pillar of Social Rights. Finally, the EU needs to train more specialists in AI, building on its long tradition of academic excellence, create the right environment for them to work in the EU and attract more talent from abroad.”

This initiative, which has already received significant press coverage, may become Europe’s answer to the strong investments China and the United States are making in Artificial Intelligence technologies. There is also a fact sheet about the communication.

The Second Machine Age

The Second Machine Age, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, two MIT professors and researchers, offers mostly an economist’s point of view on the consequences of the technological changes that are remaking civilisation.

Although a fair number of chapters is dedicated to the technological innovations that are shaping the first decades of the 21st century, the book is at its best when the economic issues are presented and discussed.

The book is particularly interesting in its treatment of the bounty vs. spread dilema: will economic growth be fast enough to lift everyone’s standard of living, or will increased concentration of wealth lead to such an increase in inequality that many will be left behind?

The chapter that provides evidence on the steady increase in inequality is specially appealing and convincing. While average income, in the US, has been increasing steadily in the last decades, median income (the income of those who are exactly in the middle of the pay scale) has stagnated for several decades, and may even be decreasing in the last few years. For the ones at the bottom at the scale, the situation is much worst now than decades ago.

Abundant evidence of this trend also comes from the analysis of the shares of GDP that are due to wages and to corporate profits. Although these two fractions of GDP have fluctuated somewhat in the last century, there is mounting evidence that the fraction due to corporate profits is now increasing, while the fraction due to wages is decreasing.

All this evidence, put together, leads to the inevitable conclusion that society has to explicitly address the challenges posed by the fourth industrial revolution.

The last chapters are, indeed, dedicated to this issue. The authors do not advocate a universal basic income, but come out in defence of a negative income tax for those whose earnings are below a given level. The mathematics of the proposal are somewhat unclear but, in the end, one thing remains certain: society will have to address the problem of mounting inequality brought in by technology and globalisation.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Homo Deus, the sequel to the wildly successful hit Sapiens, by Yuval Harari, aims to chronicle the history of tomorrow and to provide us with a unique and dispassionate view of the future of humanity. In Homo Deus, Harari develops further the strongest idea in Sapiens, the idea that religions (or shared fictions) are the reason why humanity came to dominate the world.

Many things are classified by Harari as religions, from the traditional ones like Christianism, Islamism or Hinduism, to other shared fictions that we tend not to view as religions, such as countries, money, capitalism, or humanism. The ability to share fictions, such as these, created in Homo sapiens the ability to coordinate enormous numbers of individuals in order to create vast common projects: cities, empires and, ultimately, modern technology. This is the idea, proposed in Sapiens, that Harari develops further in this book.

Harari thinks that, with the development of modern technology, humans will doggedly pursue an agenda consisting of three main goals: immortality, happiness and divinity. Humanity will try to become immortal, to live in constant happiness and to be god-like in its power to control nature.

The most interesting part of the book is in middle, where Harari analyses, in depth, the progressive but effective replacement of ancient religions by the dominant modern religion, humanism. Humanism, the relatively recent idea that there is a unique spark in humans, that makes human life sacred and every individual unique. Humanism therefore believes that meaning should be sought in the individual choices, views, and feelings, of humans, replaced almost completely traditional religions (some of them with millennia), which believed that meaning was to be found in ancient scriptures or “divine” sayings.

True, many people still believe in traditional religions, but with the exception of a few extremist sects and states, these religions plays a relatively minor role in conducting the business of modern societies. Traditional religions have almost nothing to say about the key ideas that are central to modern societies, the uniqueness of the individual and the importance of the freedom of choice, ideas that led to our current view of democracies and ever-growing market-oriented economies. Being religious, in the traditional sense, is viewed as a personal choice, a choice that must exist because of the essential humanist value of freedom of choice.

Harari’s description of the humanism schism, into the three flavors of liberal humanism, socialist humanism, and evolutionary humanism (Nazism and other similar systems), is interesting and entertaining. Liberal humanism, based on the ideals of free choice, capitalism, and democracy, has been gaining the upper hand in the twentieth century, with occasional relapses, over socialism or enlightened dictatorships.

The last part of the book, where one expects Harari to give us a hint of what may come after humanism, once technology creates systems and machines that make humanist creeds obsolete, is rather disappointing. Instead of presenting us with the promises and threats of transhumanism, he clings to common clichés and rather mundane worries.

Harari firmly believes that there are two types of intelligent systems: biological ones, which are conscious and have, possibly, some other special properties, and the artificial ones, created by technology, which are not conscious, even though they may come to outperform humans in almost every task. According to him, artificial systems may supersede humans in many jobs and activities, and possibly even replace humans as the intelligent species on Earth, but they will never have that unique spark of consciousness that we, humans, have.

This belief leads to two rather short-sighted final chapters, which are little more than a rant against the likes of Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Harari is (and justifiably so) particularly aghast with the new fad, so common these days, of believing that every single human experience should go online, to make shareable and give it meaning. The downsize is that this fad provides data to the all-powerful algorithms that are learning all there is to know about us. I agree with him that this is a worrying trend, but viewing it as the major threat of future technologies is a mistake. There are much much more important issues to deal with.

It is not that these chapters are pessimistic, even though they are. It is that, unlike in the rest of Homo Deus (and in Sapiens), in these last chapters Harari’s views seem to be locked inside a narrow and traditionalist view of intelligence, society, and, ultimately, humanity.

Other books, like SuperintelligenceWhat Technology Wants or The Digital Mind provide, in my opinion, much more interesting views on what a transhumanist society may come to be.

Taxing robots: a solution for unemployment or a recipe for economic disaster?

In a recent interview with Quartz, Bill Gates, who cannot exactly be called a Luddite, argued that a robot tax should be levied and used to help pay for jobs in healthcare and education, which are hard to automate and can only be done by humans (for now). Gates pointed out that humans are taxed on the salary they make, unlike the robots who could replace them.

Gates argued that governments must take more control of the consequences of increased technological sophistication and not rely on businesses to redistribute the income that is generated by the new generation of robots and artificial intelligence systems.

Although the idea looks appealing, it is in reality equivalent to taxing capital, as this article in The Economist explains. Taxing capital investments will slow down increases in productivity, and may lead, in the end, to poorer societies. Bill Gates’ point seems to be that investing in robots does indeed improve productivity, but also causes significant negative externalities, such as long term unemployment and increased income distribution inequalities. These negative externalities might justify a specific tax on robots, aimed at alleviating these negative externalities. In the end, it comes down to deciding whether economic growth is more important than ensuring everyone has a job.

As The Economist puts it: “Investments in robots can make human workers more productive rather than expendable; taxing them could leave the employees affected worse off. Particular workers may suffer by being displaced by robots, but workers as a whole might be better off because prices fall. Slowing the deployment of robots in health care and herding humans into such jobs might look like a useful way to maintain social stability. But if it means that health-care costs grow rapidly, gobbling up the gains in workers’ incomes, then the victory is Pyrrhic.”

Gates´ comments have been extensively analyzed in a number of articles, including this one by Yanis Varoufakis, a former finance minister of Greece, who argues that the robot tax will not solve the problem and is, at any rate, much worse than the existing alternative, a universal basic income.

The question of whether robots should be taxed is not a purely theoretical one. On February 17th, 2017, the European Parliament approved  a resolution with recommendations to the European Commission, which is heavily based on the draft report proposed by the committee on legal affairs, but leaves out the recommendations (included in the draft report) to consider a tax on robots. The decision to reject the robot tax was, unsurprisingly, well received by the robotics industry, as reported  in this article by Reuters.

PHOTO DATE: 12-12-13 LOCATION: Bldg. 32B - Valkyrie Lab SUBJECT: High quality, production photos of Valkyrie Robot for PAO PHOTOGRAPHERS: BILL STAFFORD, JAMES BLAIR, REGAN GEESEMAN

Image courtesy of NASA/Bill Stafford, James Blair and Regan Geeseman, available at Wikimedia Commons.



Will the fourth industrial revolution destroy or create jobs?

The impact of the fourth industrial revolution on jobs has been much discussed.

On one side, there are the traditional economists, who argue that technological advances have always created more and better jobs than the ones they destroyed. On the other side, the people that believe that with the arrival of artificial intelligence and robotics, there will simply not exist enough jobs that cannot be done by machines.

So, in this post, I try to present a balanced analysis on the subject, as deeply as allowed by the space and time available.

Many studies have addressed the question of which jobs are more likely to be destroyed by automation.  This study, by McKinsey, provides a very comprehensive analysis.


Recently, The Economist also published a fairly balanced analysis of the topic, already posted in this blog. In this analysis, The Economist makes a reference to a number of studies on the jobs that are at high risk but, in the end, it sides with the opinion that enough jobs will be created to replace the ones technology will destroy.

A number of books and articles have been written on the topic, including “Raising the Floor“, “The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-first Century“, “The Second Machine Age“, and “No More Work“, some of them already reviewed in this blog.

In most cases, the authors of these books advocate the need for significant changes in the way society is organized, and on the types of social contracts that need to be drawn. Guaranteeing every one a universal basic income is a proposal that has become very popular, as a way to address the question of how humanity will live in a time when there are much less jobs to go around.

Further evidence that some deep change is in the cards is provided by data that shows that, with the begining of the XXI century, income is being moved away from jobs (and workers) towards capital (and large companies):


On the other side of the debate, there are many people who believe that humans will always be able to adapt and add value to society, regardless of what machines can or cannot do. David Autor, in his TED talk, makes a compelling point that many times before it was argued that “this time is different” and that it never was.

Other articles, including this one in the Washington Post, argue that the fears are overblown. The robots will not be coming in large numbers, to replace humans. Not in the near future, anyway.

Other economists, such as  Richard Freeman, in an article published in Harvard Magazine agree and also believe that the fears are unwarranted: “We should worry less about the potential displacement of human labor by robots than about how to share fairly across society the prosperity that the robots produce.

His point is that the problem is not so much on the lack of jobs, but on the depression of wages. Jobs may still exist, but will not be well paid, and the existing imbalances in income distribution will only become worst.

Maybe, in the end, this opinion represents a balanced synthesis of the two competing views: jobs will still exist, for anyone who wants to take them, but there will be competition (from robots and intelligent agents) for them, pushing down the wages.

European Parliament committee approves proposal to give robots legal status and responsibilities

The committee on legal affairs of the European Parliament has drafted and approved a report that addresses many of the legal, social and financial consequences of the development of robots and artificial intelligence (AI).

The draft report addresses a large number of issues related with the advances of robotics, AI and related technologies, and proposes a number of european regulations to govern the utilization of robots and other advanced AI agents.

The report was approved with a 17-2 vote (and two abstentions) by the parliament’s legal affairs committee.


Among many other issues addressed, the report considers:

  • The question of legal status: “whereas, ultimately, robots’ autonomy raises the question of their nature in the light of the existing legal categories – of whether they should be regarded as natural persons, legal persons, animals or objects – or whether a new category should be created”, advancing with the proposal of “creating a specific legal status for robots, so that at least the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations…”
  • The impact of robotics and AI on employment and social security, and concludes that “consideration should be given to the possible need to introduce corporate reporting requirements on the extent and proportion of the contribution of robotics and AI to the economic results of a company for the purpose of taxation and social security contributions; takes the view that in the light of the possible effects on the labour market of robotics and AI a general basic income should be seriously considered, and invites all Member States to do so;”
  • The need for a clear and unambiguous registration system for robots, recommending that “a system of registration of advanced robots should be introduced, and calls on the Commission to establish criteria for the classification of robots with a view to identifying the robots that would need to be registered;”