It’s safe to say we’ve been distracted for the last few years. While a tumultuous political, social and economic landscape has seized Britain, in the background a technological revolution has been taking place. No longer a futuristic concept, artificial intelligence (AI) (opens in new tab) is making its way into our lives right now.
Self-learning machines are already found in devices and cloud services (opens in new tab) used by three in four global consumers. They’re also dictating which media we consume, how we communicate with each other and what our jobs entail. Could human intelligence soon be replaced?
Perhaps not. There are a huge number of misconceptions around AI, not to mention fear about its capabilities. The best way to define its true meaning, abilities and potential impact upon the world is to speak to those using it today. I took part in a series of focus groups with data scientists, business leaders, academics and students, all of whom work closely with this technology. As those who are shaping how AI impacts our society, their views show whether we should embrace AI, or fight back.
A change is coming to jobs, but unemployment won’t rise
One topic was pervasive: job losses due to AI-driven automation. While it’s positive that most participants believed AI would create more jobs than it replaced, there was little agreement on the duration, severity or consequences of job losses resulting from AI in the short term. In particular, younger participants tended to be more pessimistic about their future prospects, anticipating a significant rise in AI-enabled inequality and a breakdown of social cohesion. Some feared the powerful technology being placed in the hands of a few could drive a much greater divide between those with power, wealth and influence and those without.
Yet, while there was some trepidation from this current and future workforce, the message from the boardroom was loud and clear: workers have little to fear from AI. The reason for this was simple – even in an AI-driven future, humans would remain a valuable commodity worth investing in. They would continue to deliver value that machines do not.
Autonomous robot assistants aren’t on the cards… yet
As several of the professors and data scientists informed us, we are still a long way from the ‘general intelligence’ so often portrayed in science fiction. Despite the hype, most AIs are designed to be very good at solving a specific problem and under very particular parameters. Introduce a variable and the system breaks down or a new model needs to be created.
Time and time again, the respondents reminded us that human creativity, insight and contextual awareness were key to making AI work. Technical executives in the C-suite told us how they ensured any autonomous processes were closely monitored and supervised by human employees (opens in new tab). AI solutions with hidden internal workings weren’t worth the risk, due to a lack of transparency and explainability.
These sorts of validation roles have started to emerge only recently. With time, however, more transparent processes where employees review, understand and resolve the decisions made by AI systems will be a massive source of employment. Like any piece of software, the quality of AI insight depends on the quality of the data you feed into it, and it takes a human to know and judge what is good for it.
The world as we know it is changing for good
Technological revolutions are nothing new. Each generation is faced with a new set of technologies which upend stability in favour of progress. How many Uber drivers, YouTubers and app developers (opens in new tab) did you know at the start of the millennium? Just as the internet revolutionized life as we knew it, AI is powerful enough to cause seismic change across all industries. But, as one respondent on our focus groups put it, “AI will replace us just like computers (opens in new tab) did. That’s to say, it won’t.”
Today’s genuine AI users argue that public perceptions of AI often contain elements of sci-fi. In reality, the future belongs to the cyborg, rather than the android. This is a key distinction: rather than imitating humans and challenging us at our own game, our economy will be defined by humans able to work hand in glove with AI. In a team, humans and AI can develop simultaneously to make better decisions, improve productivity (opens in new tab), and ultimately boost humanity to new heights – and that revolution has already started.
- Dr Iain Brown is Head of Data Science at SAS UK & Ireland (opens in new tab).
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