Given its seemingly recent explosion onto the mainstream radar of consumers and media alike, Artificial Intelligence may feel to some like an entirely ‘new’ concept, a glitzy if complex breakthrough technology that is futuristic in its very design.
In my work as a tech futurist, speaker and aspiring author - I’m currently working on a book unveiling the digital advances of the next decade that will radically shift our everyday reality - I am constantly talking to consumers outside of the tech industry to get their take on the fourth industrial revolution.
The common perception of AI? A world of swarming humanoid robots that will at some point take control of humans (personally, one I firmly disbelieve in - more below), hideously clever algorithms bestowing hitherto unseen intelligence upon inanimate machines and cars that whizz around autonomously, elegantly taking you to and fro your desired destination. Indeed, in the past quarter alone, brands large and small have frequently asked me “How do I do AI?”
However, while AI is only just now capturing public imagination, the concept is said to have been introduced back in 1950 by our resident favourite, mathematician Alan Turing. In a seminal paper titled “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” he broached the notion of machines acquiring the ability to perform intelligent talks and simulate human ‘thinking’. Then computer scientist John McCarthy coined the term AI in 1955/56, defining it as “the science and engineering of making intelligent machines”.
But back to the present. For my book, I’m currently exploring if AI has truly evolved successfully from its early goal and what meaningful shape its future applications might take.
For the past five years, I’ve been fortunate to have interviewed some of the tech and digital industry’s most brilliant thought leaders - established and emerging - on the impact of technologies for both long-running video series Digital Futures and my industry work. As part of my research for each episode, I make it a point to go out ‘on the field’ and coax folks to share their most pressing concerns to do with the topic in question.
The common refrain on AI? “The robots are coming, aren’t they?” Could these machines behave ethically, think truly independently? How do we know they’ll be used wisely? There’s no dearth of news headlines proclaiming humanoid robots will outwit - and possibly annihilate - its creators.
That would be us humans. No wonder most folks I know furrow their brows in anxiety at the mere thought of robots walking among us.
Personally, I see a great deal of scaremongering here.
You see, for all their programmed intelligence, these machines lack a vital element - human consciousness and empathy. And we haven’t yet found a way to reproduce that meaningfully nor in its full intricate form.
In a former episode of the video series, I’ve raised all these points and more with my two incredible experts - AI architect and Author of “In Our Own Image” George Zarkadakis and AI pioneer and founder of Cleverbot, Rollo Carpenter. Have a watch.
Even if we “program” empathy, for machines to acquire the full-breadth of our brand of consciousness, they will need to master the complexities and nuances of human behaviour (on a lighter note, this boggles even us humans much of the time!)
Until and unless we are at that stage - and it is a long way to go - we must not panic.
There’s also a great deal of commentary warning about advances in AI and robotics displacing our jobs - some research even suggests this might put 47% of U.S. employment (that’s 60 mn+ jobs) at risk in the next decade.
While there is some validity here in that argument - and understandable fear of socio-economic repercussions - it may be key to remember that AI holds some power to potentially displace certain types of jobs.
A significant number of the category of jobs that stand to be lost to automation are the very same that enterprises have either been outsourcing or offshoring for decades (think call centre customer support, first-level accounting, processing customer data) or that are by their nature transaction-heavy and repetitive and always been ripe for automation - think assembly lines and supply chain processes.
Many of these functions are about processing swathes of ‘big data’, and tools to make sense of this information have steadily been integrated into many large organisations for atleast the past five years now.
Some more advanced functions that stand to be automated include compliance systems in the finance industry, insurance claims and arduous tax systems and procedures.
I’d call for another way to look at or deal with this perceived threat - as a valuable opportunity to enhance productivity (freeing up more of workers’ time away from tedious data collection) and crucially, reskilling ie equipping an existing and future workforce with the digital literacy and skillsets they will need to compete in this digital age, AI or no AI.
Any job losses should be mitigated by paving the way to higher value work. We will need to work alongside these intelligent systems. Human creativity won’t be successfully automated.
Not only that, every AI-powered function and machine calls for talented humans who will help create it, repair it and train it.
Granted these are currently seen as more specialist or niche jobs and require a healthy understanding of science and math. But it could very well persuade more of our young, next-gen workforce to consider training in STEM subjects. And for those who justifiably wonder ‘well that’s well and good for the 16 year olds, but what might a 42 year old do, to whom retraining is massively daunting?’, this is where I see businesses needing to step in. They must take responsibility for helping dispel the notion that learning or education is limited to Gen X (14-19) or Gen Y (18-34) and instead invest resource into offering reskilling opportunities to current employees that stand to be displaced. This will factor significantly into building a sustainable digital economy.
Rounding this up, I want to stress the point that AI operates silently, positively and powerfully in the background powering some of the simple, day-to-day digital offerings that you and I don’t think of twice - receiving fraud alerts from our bank, playing a video or mobile game, using Siri on our iPhones. Doctors too have been using AI-powered systems for many years now to base decisions on which patients could be at higher risk of developing a particular disease when taking certain medications.
Amidst some legitimate concerns, there is a vast mine of positive, constructive applications for AI across sectors, industries and societal spheres. It’s just a shame that many of these are drowned out in the ‘noise’ of doom harbingers and sensationalist op-eds.