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JOEL Joel's Blog

AI - Artificial Intelligence and Woodworking


AI - Artificial Intelligence and Woodworking 1

As I sit at my desk under the watchful eye of my Dalek overlord, I am pondering the impact AI will have on woodworking.

First of all, for anyone who works with their hands, being replaced by machine is nothing new. Whether you are a skilled hand weaver or a master at the forge, the mass market replaced you long ago with power looms and drop forges. The machines produced simpler work at great savings and thereby turned most manufacturing from something skilled to something that mostly requires a lot of capital to set up. The chasm between master and maker grew wider.

Machines got rid of a lot of very repetitive work that needed a skilled person to do uninteresting work, but at the same time removed the custom work that made the job interesting.

AI just means that the same thing will happen to desk jobs. Pretty soon lots and lots of perfectly nice, competent people will lose their jobs - both the boring bits and the interesting bits.

But how will this affect woodworkers? The first and most obvious effect is that architectural woodworking, which is the backbone of modern custom work, will have fewer offices to build and the offices will be simpler.

Various computer aids already enable a cabinetmaker to speed up and produce drawings quickly for an ever larger range of products and situations. You might even see a new breed of "cabinetmaker" use a computer to design everything, and outsource the actual manufacture. Oh, that's happening already. My bad.

But one thing that's happening that is good is that small shops are now using computers, outsourcing and other methods and now have access to some of the efficient processes that previously were only available to giant companies. Computers in general, and modern software including AI , certainly make it much easier to be an efficient tiny company - and that's good.

It also wouldn't shock me to see more people enter the various trades at all levels of skill, simply because office jobs might disappear at the same time the need for people who make, fix, and put things together, continues.

But the basic goal of automation has always been the simplify and homogenize designs. So the imaginative person, who can come up with a new approach to design and make something interesting, still has a window, maybe even a larger window, for opportunity. The reason for this is no matter how clever we make our machines, we have literally no idea where the next great new idea is coming from. Giant companies that supposedly know what they're doing, have no idea either. Google spends billions on development, and the way they avoid getting caught short is by spending money on all sorts of projects and then killing the projects that don't seem to pan out. For all the great smart people at these companies, they still have not figured out a method for creation of new ideas that works. The movie industry since its beginning has desperately tried to figure out how to make sure when they make a movie it's going to be a hit. To this day they haven't figured it out (yes, I'm thinking of you "Heaven's Gate" or any number of failed sequels).

I'm pretty sure AI will enable woodworkers to design things faster. It'll also help somebody who wants to (for example) build a bookcase, have a machine crank out measured drawings for that bookcase. And maybe even find the best place to buy the materials and all those things. That's good, as all these bits of automation help the small company compete with a big company. It also means that your designs can be more ambitious. If AI can help me design the mundane bits of a project better and save me time, I can do more complicated projects successfully.

On the downside, I see institutional structures, both in the government and private sector, totally not getting ready for what is probably a cataclysmic wave of change. The government's are very happy to give tax breaks and handouts to people who invest in technology. In New York the governor has proposed a nearly $400 million fund to encourage AI R&D, partnering with various universities around the state. But this isn't actually what everybody needs. What we should be doing as a government and as a society is creating an infrastructure of a safety net so anyone can take risk to pursue a new job or new idea - in AI or any other realm.

There are hundreds of thousands of extremely talented crafts people in this country, most of whom would like nothing more than to make their product and do it the best way they know how. They have ideas on new ways of making things, new ways of applying technology, and new ways of doing things. But they are trapped in their current situations because of things like high costs of health insurance, educational debt, and an uncertain future. If as a society we could mitigate or remove the risk, we would be creating millions of new interesting jobs, and yes - fund AI innovation too. Some European countries do this already and sometimes it has resulted in new technology, but more often it has resulted in more small, happier businesses.

From a business standpoint, encouraging small businesses, the hotbed of most job creation, and helping them grow because you've mitigated their risk is a much better use of funds than giving handouts and tax breaks to big companies who frankly have the money to take the risk on their own and do it all the time.

N.B. ChatGPT is amazing, but it doesn't really think. It just evaluates existing data and formulas a credible response to your question. So as great as it may be in writing a sonnet in the style of Metallica or an outraged letter to customer service, in my view this new technology is as far from being able to come up with a new idea as it always has been. It just seems smarter. I had a boss like this once. He name wasn’t “AI” but you could ask him any question and he would take whatever was the popular answer and regurgitate it back to you in a somewhat repacked form as if it was his own idea. His management thought he was brilliant and insightful. But as for actual innovation, he never had an original idea in his head his entire life.

PS. Just after this blog was written, the head of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, released a blog post in which she declared that “AI will affect almost 40 percent of jobs around the world, replacing some and complementing others. We need a careful balance of policies to tap its potential.” This isn't the same approach as I am suggesting; I think small businesses are the wave of the future, but she isn't wrong.

Join the conversation
01/24/2024 Joe Barry
Check out Blood in the Machine by Brian Merchant
01/24/2024 A. Knowland
Thanks for writing this, Joel, and for your thoughts and historical perspectives. We need good ideas if we are to successfully navigate the changes we face as a society in the face of AI's impact.
01/24/2024 Jasno
I think in a lot of ways, AI is like the calculator. In the 70s, everyone thought they would be disruptive to education. Now they allow students to use them on tests. It's clearly more impactful than a calculator. But similarly, we just need to figure out how to use AI to do the grunt work, and leave us more time to do the inspirational stuff.
01/24/2024 Stephen Dale Bamford
In my opinion knowledge is power, so I thank you for your insights. At the moment I'm in the middle of reading "The Worlds I See: Curiosity, Exploration, and Discovery at the Dawn of AI" by Dr. Fei-Fei Li, professor of computer science and founding director of Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI. Who knows what course us humans are on?
01/24/2024 Joe Leonetti
Hi Joel,
AI is certainly the big topic across the workplace. Change will occur but that has been going on for a long time. I had a job that required an extended stay in MA. I got to do a lot of sight seeing on weekends. On stop was the historical Springfield Armory in MA. Wooden stocks were needed on firearms. I forget exactly when but I want to say around 200 years ago they had developed something of the equivalent of a pattern following router to carve out the bulk of the wood to reduce the time to make gunstocks. One weekend I went to Vermont and toured the Musume of Precision. Again, could see where mass mfg was taking over. All fun musumes. I point this out because AI will just lead to a continuation of change. Humans will adapt. Still doubt AI will be cleaver like humanity as you pointed out. All will be ok.
01/24/2024 Philip Harley
Hi Joel, 3 things to think about 1) the intellectual property rights of the designers whose work is being absorbed into the AI knowledge base 2) Computerised machines are good at designs into homogenised materials. It still (maybe not for long) takes craftspeople to recognise grain, grain direction, expansion and contraction directions etc to get the most out of unprocessed real wood 3) It is inevitable. Good or bad. I hope it doesn't go too far. Imagine a world where (to save trees as as natural resource) it was compulsory to use AI to minimise waste?
01/25/2024 joseph curran
We've become arrogant in our old age and now we may suffer the consequence. Anyone ever hear of, "the sins of the father" ? I take responsibility for my mistakes and the mistakes of my ancestors. I don't want to share them with my children or the world but that has always been inevitable to a degree. AI is that concept times billions and billions. We should remember that AI gets its data from us. All of it. Every bit. Think about that! It looks at every bit of our data in the blink of an eye and spits out a result. It calculates the truth and the non truth. The compassion and the bigotry. The sense and the nonsense. The information that is real and the information that is "fake". At this time in our history we seem to relish misinformation more than the truth. For that, AI is the perfect fit. What do we think the ultimate result will be ? Heaven on earth ? We are not talking about a tool here, that we can manipulate, or even a factory robot. We are talking about discissions and concepts that come from something that is material and lifeless that has no conscience at all. I would rather deal with my own mistakes and not share them with others. It's been shown that AI makes mistakes. Are we ready for that ?
An example some might be interested in is: "Hidden In White Sight: How AI Empowers And Deepens Systemic Racism" by Calvin Lawrence. Or David Auerbach's "Meganets". These are not AI naysayers by the way.
This isn't about the feel good worlds we have all come to cherish and dream about. There is no MAGA here. This is about opening Pandor's box and looking inside. Only to see ourselves and what we have become and what we may end up being. Not sure when the time comes and I am asked, "what did you do with your life ?" Will I have to answer, "hold on a minute and let me ask AI"
01/28/2024 Mike
I just wanted to say thank you for all your posts. The topics are so diverse and I appreciate your writings on art, craft, business and more. I never know what your next topic will be, but I am sure it will make me stop, reconsider, and appreciate all life has to offer. Thank you!
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.