Fear not, AI is here

AI benefitsOn a number of occasions, I have chatted about future scenarios for our computing or technology driven lives for good reason, in as much as the developments in the area of technology continue to ramp up more and more talk about fear of job loss, fear of ‘our way of life’ going down the gurgler, and fear for our children and grandchildren’s well-being in the time to come.

They are not irrational fears, but the more you are in the picture the less threatening such developments become.

Perhaps the idea of AI [artificial intelligence] poses the most controversy because it conjures up spectres of robots roaming around or machinery taking over and performing tasks that only humans could previously do.

Thomas CarlyleBear in mind that it is not a new thought, back in 1839 Thomas Carlyle wrote of the ‘demon of mechanism’ whose disruptive power was guilty of ‘oversetting whole multitudes of workmen’. That of course was the industrialization of Britain and he was not the first to recognize the impact on the economy and the subsequent effect on the labouring classes and their employment.

200 years later the same situation has arisen, albeit in a new guise, and technologists, economists, politicians and thinkers are debating the impact which is likely to be profound.

The forecast by the money men is for enormous reductions  in cost of employment, manufacturing costs, health care and efficiency cost [in the US up to 33trillion dollars]. The think-tank, the McKinsey Global Institute, states that Artificial Intelligence is contributing to societal transformation ‘happening 10 times faster and at 300 times the scale, or roughly 3000 times the impact’ of the Industrial Revolution.

Now you say: ‘didn’t I tell you this is madness, the devil’s work’, in which case you’d agree with Elon Musk, the inventor and maker of the Tesla electric car and maker of the SpaceX rockets, who said “with artificial intelligence, we’re summoning the devil’.

He is echoing Thomas Carlyle yet he is using AI technology to drive his cars on their own.

Deep MindHe is not alone though and the concerns expressed are understandable because recent progress in the AI field has been astonishing. You may recall Deep Mind [Google here, there, everywhere] and the AlphaGo system that defeated Lee Seedol, a world champion in the game of ‘Go’, a board game so complex that computers had not been expected to master it for at least another 10 years.

A major difference is an AI technique called ‘deep learning’ where the system learns and improves by crunching examples instead of being explicitly programmed. And, yes, it is being used to power internet searches, block spam emails, translate webpages, suggest email replies, recognize voice commands, detect credit card frauds and steer self driving cars, with other words instead of people writing software, it is data writing software.

If you have read this far – thank you – you may see danger in the use of AI, or you may see opportunities.

The fact remains that last year some US$8.5 billion was spent on AI companies and the new business model for start-ups includes AI by default. That means that the technology will be applied in just about every industry that has any kind of data, genes, images, language, and that means everywhere.

AI creates fear and enthusiasm in equal measure. We may be excused for being more concerned with the prospect of large unemployment and the associated problems that loom, but remember we have been there before and if our leaders are on their mettle they should by now have a strategy to ease the likely problems and utilize the advantages that AI brings.

Individually the more we learn about such technology the more likely we are to see such developments for what they are, and by harnessing their strengths make our lives more fulfilling and fearless.