“We’re doomed!” It seems appropriate to start this post off with this popular catchphrase from 3-CPO in Star Wars. This is because most of us at the time felt that such a plot was quite farfetched. Fast forward a few decades and the movie premise does not seem quite as sci-fi as it used to. We’re not implying that there are robots inhabiting our streets, or not to our knowledge, but rather that machine intelligence does in fact exist and is actually widely used on a daily basis. Think Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Now. These are some examples of artificial intelligence (AI) and it has the potential to be enormously disruptive to life as we know it.
There are two major components of AI: natural language processing and machine learning. Natural language processing is concerned with the interaction between computers and human language – the ability for a machine to understand spoken language which often has many variations such as slang, accents or even social context. Machine learning refers to the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed. Both these feats are extremely difficult to achieve.
AI has been around for many years. However, it was not until recently that we have seen this once sci-fi fantasy become more of a reality. Many factors have fueled the advancement, such as the ability to collect, analyze, store and share vast amounts of information (“big data”) in new mediums such as the Cloud. Significant progress has been made in developing neural networks or parallel computing, which allows computers to understand unstructured data, a key component to machine learning. Also, leading technology firms such as Microsoft, Alphabet (Google), Facebook have been large contributors to AI’s development. For example, Alphabet is using its proprietary AI technology in its new supercharged messaging app, Allo. Through Allo, the user can make dinner reservations, book movie tickets and even communicate with a bot called @google.
The core competency for AI lies in its ability to think and learn for itself which fosters constant development and improvement. The ability for a computer to think refers to it actually deriving knowledge from the data, not just processing it. Now consider that this acquired knowledge can be shared amongst other AI, allowing for the next generation of AI to start from a higher knowledge base. This knowledge sharing creates a virtuous cycle which will push AI’s proficiency to that of the most knowledgeable human being and beyond in a very short period of time.
Additionally, AI will be capable of storing and retrieving a much larger set of information than any human could imagine. Once AI can process and understand the natural language, perceive their environment using sensors and form representations of this environment they will be able to use different techniques to either augment humans in the decision making process or act independently.
Without a doubt, AI is on the path to revolutionize the workforce. The revolution will disrupt both the low skilled labour intensive and the information intensive skilled labour sectors. Widespread adoption is already taking place, Amazon for example, uses robotics in its fulfillment centers to identify and retrieve packages, allowing for a faster cycle, less error, longer operational hours and reduced labour requirements. Law firms are using AI to scrutinize legal documents and to answer legal questions. Gene sequencing has resulted in lots of genetic data which creates an opportunity for AI to analyze, interpret and recommend treatments. It will be extremely tough for humans to rival the speed and accuracy of AI. Not to mention AI doesn’t require breaks, get tired or stressed and can work 24/7.
This new age of technology is putting pressure on the labour force and will result in the loss of millions of jobs, jobs that once provided a path to the middle class life. As already experienced, back office jobs or even Wall Street Traders are being replaced by software and digital technology. This has left workers little alternative but either accept a lower paying job or exit the workforce. AI will only expedite this trend. The ramifications of which would be increased income inequality, higher unemployment and eventual social unrest. The regulators will face pressure to take action to limit job loss but action on their part would only delay the inevitable.
This raises a very important consideration. That is, should we just accept the fact that we are entering a period of a jobless economy and let go of the predetermined notion that we all need jobs? After all, wouldn’t it be nice to spend more time with the family? If this becomes the norm, we would still all require some form of basic income…socialism?
So far we’ve only discussed the potential disruptive impact on the labour force. However, AI will have equally disruptive impacts on many other economic and demographic factors. As an example, AI lowers the barriers to entry for start-up businesses by reducing the initial capital and labour requirements. Furthermore, AI has the potential to act as a solution for the aging world population and the current lack of resources and professionals to care for them. Imagine the demand for a senior care robot which could actively communicate with the elderly, monitor their well being and conduct heavy lifting all in their own home.
This technological revolution should be viewed as an advancement or natural economic progression, similar to the steam engine. To fully digest this, consider the economic transition from our past. That is the transition from an agricultural economy to one reliant on manufacturing and now the move to a service based economy.
Progress in AI has been remarkable over the past few years, but remains underappreciated as it’s still in the early stages. However, it is safe to say that the next leg of the revolution has the potential to be very disruptive and threatening to human expertise and the way that we have learned to define our everyday working life. With that said, we assure you that there will be many more blog posts on this subject in the future. We have made it our goal here at Summerhill to educate our readers on the most important and disruptive trends shaping our world and AI is definitely one of them.
Consider the following: the automobile now has more similarities to a computer than the Ford Model T. Can we eventually expect AI to have more similarities to humans than a computer?
The Summerhill Team