Nothing conjures up the utopian-dystopian divide quite like the topic of Artificial Intelligence. While optimists focus on the possibility of alleviating suffering and realising human potential, figures such as Elon Musk are firmly in the latter camp, calling it ‘the biggest risk we face as a civilisation’ and comparing it to ‘summoning the demon’.
Nevertheless last year VC firms invested $4.9 billion in AI ventures in the second quarter, compared to $2.7 billion in the first quarter, and 84% of US business executives said implementing AI “at scale” in their organisations will be necessary in the next 3 years.
“AI isn’t a tidal wave that will sweep instantly across continents. It’s going to be a mosaic” – Arthur Orduna, chief innovation officer for Avis Budget Group Inc.
Though we can speculate, the future remains uncertain and whilst the Technology we have today may seem quite far off, with exponential rates of progress making bounds and leaps, change is a guarantee and nowhere is set to feel that more than the world of work. Unlike this pretty brief blink, blogger Tim Urban writes a brilliantly detailed post on the Road To Superintelligence.
With a huge portion of the workforce set to take a hit, the need to up-skill and the creation of new jobs is tantamount. And although this could widen the wealth gap and create huge challenges:
‘If handled with care and foresight, the AI crisis could present a chance for us to redirect our energy towards more human pursuits: to taking care of each other and our communities. But to have any chance of forging that future we must first understand the economic gauntlet that we are about to pass through.’ – Kai Fu Lee, US and China VC and AI Researcher.
What makes AI so special? Predominantly its ability to detect subtle patterns in incredibly large amounts of data, and to learn from them, yielding far more accurate results and predictions than their human programmers.
These developments have allowed AI to move from automation to autonomy, by overcoming the limitations of carrying out small tasks repeatedly, and gaining the capacity to continuously learn from new data. This will allow AI to expand into areas such as driving cars, diagnosing disease or providing customer support. Despite being a highly narrow objective machine, where AI will struggle is in the distinctly more human realms – choosing its own goals, thinking creatively or providing understanding and empathy.
Nevertheless, many of the free-markets self-correcting mechanisms could break down in an AI economy, as it is inherently monopolistic. A company with more data and better algorithms will gain ever more users and data. This self-reinforcing cycle leads to winner-takes-all markets, possibly creating a plutocratic AI elite.
One solution that has come into the mix is the idea of The Universal Basic Income: an unconditional government-provided cash stipend to allow every citizen to meet their basic needs, like benefits for the masses. The ability to pay for such a scheme will depend on the pace and nature of AI’s economic impact.
2020 is a decade that will increasingly see the need for purpose to run alongside profit. In the private sector, instead of simply viewing AI as a means of cost-cutting, businesses could create new jobs that actively seek to harness the symbiosis between the accuracy of AI and the delivery of the human touch.
Marrying purpose with profit is at the heart of spaces like x+why in East London, who foster communities built around creating a better future for all. One of their residents, Ashoka, is currently running an open competition centred around the three key elements that will allow the workforce of today to thrive, not just survive – re-skilling, up-skilling and lifelong learning.
“As the way of working changes, the big issue is, what happens to your current employee base? The whole scaling-up agenda needs to be part of the conversation” – Sanjay Verma, a Principal in PWC’s Advisory Technology
By 2022 the World Economic Forum predicts that automation will displace 75 million jobs worldwide, whilst creating 133 million new ones. So although a large majority of jobs are at risk of being automated, some of the damage could be offset by possible job gains arising from new technologies.
As Andy Kessler said in the Wall Street Journal column “The future happens, just not the way most people think”, we don’t know what we don’t know. What we do know, is that not only will the most important skill of the future be the ability to learn new skills, but also to combine them in creatively human ways, perhaps as part of an evolution more than revolution.