The machines are rising! Robots are stealing our jobs! AI is making us obsolete! Maybe it’s inherited trauma from the Industrial Revolution, but in recent years people’s concerns about artificial intelligence have heightened, especially anxiety that the technology will replace human workers throughout the economy.
It was even the basis of one 2020 presidential candidate’s campaign. Well, I bring a message of optimism. While AI will dramatically transform how work is done and who does it, its overall impact won’t be to displace humans but to augment them. And the myriad, miraculous ways that this technology will be able to improve people’s lives should excite and inspire.
Most of the fears of artificial intelligence are overblown if not altogether unfounded. For one thing, the machine-learning models that are being deployed in enterprises today are lightyears away from the kind of general intelligence that humans possess, and that the public thinks of when it thinks of AI/ML. These models are all depth and no breadth: very powerful at what they’ve been trained to do—image recognition, speech-to-text, disease diagnosis—but extremely limited in the imaginative scope of what they can do beyond that.
The gains in capacity and efficiency from artificial intelligence make it undeniable that AI is the future of software and will radically alter business. But it doesn’t therefore follow that people are the past of work. First of all, adoption of AI is likely to drive employment up, not down, as new jobs are created at the human-machine interface where people will be required to do new and different things. AI systems will need to be maintained to ensure they’re functioning properly and safely, for example. Chatbots will need to be trained. And it’s estimated that in order to administer the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation, 75,000 new jobs will have to be created.
In the near term, there will be suffering for some. Automation inevitably makes the work of some individuals redundant or unnecessary. How we as a society cushion the losses and help those who are affected make the transition—be that UBI, retraining, or some other policy entirely—is beyond the scope of this piece, but their hardships shouldn’t be minimized. Past the initial shocks, however, the historical evidence is that automation tends to sharply increase an economy’s demand for overall labour and raise average wages.
In fact, far from replacing people, the most promising products being developed are the ones that marry human judgment and intuition with AI’s brute-force processing power. The reality is that because code has been commoditized, most innovation is now being created at the interface with end users—at the level where empathy is essential. Our robot overlords don’t yet understand what inspires and elevates us, or what our deep-down needs are, or how to build beautiful products that people must have. Simply throwing more and more technology at a problem is never the answer. Consumers don’t care, ultimately, how advanced a company’s technology is; they care about how simple the solution it offers is. The truth is, in a world in which you can build almost anything, compassionate, human-centred entrepreneurs are more critical than ever to deciding what’s worth building in the first place.
The worthwhile possibilities with AI are endless. Think of a prediction system for farmers that provides real-time recommendations for increasing the productivity of their yield—including which crops to plant, the best areas to grow them, the amount of nitrogen the soil requires. Or an AI-based fraud-detection solution for banks, which monitors hundreds of millions of daily transactions to identify patterns of likely financial criminal activity. Think of “deepfake” images and videos created with the use of AI and so increasingly sophisticated that only with the use of the technology can they be revealed. Or imagine the potential of truly personalized medicine: drugs being discovered and created 10 times faster than it now takes, for a patient set so small that it would be diseconomy for today’s pharmaceutical companies. All these applications of AI are in some stage of already happening now.
Artificial intelligence isn’t a Sarah Connor-killing, jobs-eradicating threat. It’s a tool, which in the past decade, has arrived at a point where it is finally practical to deploy across the tech ecosystem. There isn’t and won’t be a single AI company. Instead, you will see artificial intelligence woven into the fabric of everything—whether you’re interacting with a virtual personal assistant like Siri or Alexa, or trying to find the fastest route to the airport, or optimizing which colour blouse you’d be most likely to buy from your monthly subscription commerce service, or how to detect malignant tumours long before they’re visible in CT scan, or how to tell whether your network is being compromised by a DDOS attack, or how to detect which drones flying above Levi’s Stadium are friend or foe.
And perhaps it’s only when a technology is fully integrated into daily life, and recedes into the background of our imagination, that people stop fearing it. After all, the most successful automations are no longer called robots—they’re called cruise control, washing machines, and elevators. So: be not afraid. The machines are rising, and they will carry us higher.