Discussion around the future impact of artificial intelligence (AI) inevitably circles back to one question: Will it take our jobs?
Ignorance drives a large percentage of us to say ‘yes’; conjuring up images of a robot apocalypse that drives us all onto the street. This isn’t helped by tech visionaries such as Elon Musk, who has said that artificial intelligence “doesn’t have to be evil to destroy humanity. If AI has a goal and humanity just happens to be in the way, it will destroy humanity as a matter of course without even thinking about it.”
However, despite this rather extreme and disturbing view from someone who you’d think would know better, most experts in the field of AI are unanimous in their opinion of a less drastic outcome. Tech writer Richard Waters describes it this way:
“In this version of the future, people will still have a role working alongside smart systems: either the technology will not be good enough to take over completely, or the decisions will have human consequences that are too important to hand over completely to a machine.”
This view is supported by Musk’s peers, such as Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg, who says the AI threat has been grossly exaggerated. “It’s really negative," said Zuckerberg in a live chat on Facebook. "And in some ways, I think it’s really irresponsible.” He describes a world where AI works alongside humans to bring safer driving, and technology that can save lives through diagnosing diseases like cancer.
NZ and Australian leaders see human and machine cooperation, not conflict
Closer to home, this ‘friendly AI’ is the consensus of New Zealand and Australian tech leaders too, who are on the frontline of developments in the AI and machine learning (ML) space. They foresee and support a world where human and machine work side by side in a cooperative way. This is not just a feel-good, idealistic view of what the future should look like – this is how things are happening day-to-day in their spheres of influence.
Sharing thoughts about the future of AI at a recent series of roundtable discussions, these business and innovation leaders agree that AI is just like previous industrial or mechanical ‘revolutions’, where technology brought inevitable job losses.
However, many believe this will be offset by the creation of new jobs – ‘bot trainer’ was one suggestion – and that AI will increasingly become a help to humans, freeing us up to do more valuable tasks which machines can’t. Jade Software Head of Digital, Eduard Liebenberger, describes this symbiosis as ‘assisted intelligence’.
Encouragingly, many of the leaders at the roundtables emphasise that the introduction of AI hasn’t been introduced to their businesses to slash jobs, cut costs and drive efficiencies as you would expect – but to augment what humans do. “It’s not tech or person, it’s tech and person” was one quote. Another pragmatic observation was “tech is good at doing things that people are bad at”.
There was a genuine concern expressed at all the tables about the need to support the people in their businesses to handle the transition that AI ushers in. There were nods of agreement at statements like:
“There is a lack of people with AI and related skills – we need to overcome this with internal development” and “we need to cross-train our people into new roles where AI brings job losses”.
3 ways that humans and machines work together
This new evolution of human and machine cooperation is taking place in three distinct ways. The first is the scenarios where a human acts as a backup for the artificial intelligence or robot – taking over when the machine hits a wall at the outer limit of its training and ability.
Many AI-supported work processes are being redesigned in this way, including automated call centres, where Australasian businesses are finding AI invaluable in dealing with ‘hygiene’ queries such as status updates or changes to contact details. In these situations, the AI attempts to process callers’ queries entirely, only defaulting to a human operator when the machine becomes confused.
A second scenario where machines augment humans is where sensitive tasks are always done by a person. This includes a situation where an automated system has done all the prep work and could, in fact, complete the task itself, without any fault in operation.
Two examples that Waters quotes are military drones, where human pilots, often based thousands of miles away, are called on to make the decision to fire at a target. Facial recognition systems – used to help immigration officers identify suspect travellers – are another. Both show how AI can make humans far more effective without robbing them of control.
The final human/ machine collaboration involves AI that isn’t capable of handling a task entirely on its own but is used to assist human decision-making. Algorithms that crunch data and make recommendations, or help people decide which step to take next, are increasingly being seen in our everyday life.
A topic that received a lot of attention at the Jade roundtables is the question of empathy – or, rather, AI’s lack of it. There was clear agreement that this is a line that machines are not capable of crossing – yet. An example discussed was the field of medicine. While, in the near future, an AI-enabled machine may be able to diagnose and treat an injury, who wants to be handled as an object by a machine? Everyone agreed that human empathy is something that we all want, and which is unlikely to be present in machines in the future.
Watch out for the next article in our Jade Roundtable series: ‘Who owns our personal data?’