That’s it – 2019 became 2020 and ushered in a whole new decade. At last we can stop battling with the awkward ‘Noughties’ and ‘Teenies’; the ‘Twenties’ rolls off the tongue more comfortably.
The language may be one of the few things that is comfortable about this new decade. Humanity shows little sign of enlightenment or wisdom. While many of us are fortunate enough to live in nations that are more liberal, accepting and egalitarian than ever before, the global stage amply demonstrates that stupidity, to quote Frank Zappa, remains more plentiful than hydrogen in the universe.
However human ‘stupidity’ is defined, the new decade ushers forth the counterpart, ‘artificial intelligence’. These new Roaring Twenties will undoubtedly be the decade of AI; accelerating what is already cited as the 4th industrial revolution.
I have been contemplating the role of real-world AI for half a decade now. While I, amongst others, am enamoured by Alexa (there are said to be approaching quarter of a billion Alexa enabled devices in use), these consumer level experiences hide the real roles AI is aiming to take on. Be in no doubt: in my opinion, AIs will have profound effects on society over the next ten years, displacing skills (and, thereby, people) who currently believe that their expertise is immunised against the march of technology. White collar workers; professionals such as Solicitors, lawyers, accountants; all manner of knowledge workers and more who make their living by what they do with their brains rather than their hands will, for the first time in history, find themselves impacted, displaced or even superseded by technology. Nor will the arts be exempt from this, despite the protestation of talented artists.
Ironically, manual jobs, especially crafts and trades, will be largely protected; general robotics is very much in its infancy (I love our shiny new robot vacuum, but it can’t do stairs). Equally, (for now), any role that thrives on human interaction will be protected. Noting that AI may support and supplement what these people do.
treat each AI as an employee, with a line manager, objectives and performance reviews
We are going to have to think long and hard about how we want our societies to accommodate these changes. There are the questions of AI ethics, of course; the community debate about how we want our AIs to respond will say much about each society and perhaps allow us to objectively compare different cultures. How we regulate AIs and their impact on the workplace is equally pressing; do we protect workers’ rights or allow a dystopian future where ‘big corporate’ controls most of the wealth; or do we create a new world where a fair standard of living is assured and people find purpose other than through work? How we make AIs accountable for their actions, just as we do with employees is equally valid; with one suggestion shared with me would be to treat each AI as an employee, with a line manager, objectives and performance reviews.
There are big changes coming and it’s going to be profound. However, amidst the tabloid headlines of doom-mongering and hand wringing and calls for public displays of ‘Ludditism‘ to come will be much more subtle stuff. Behind the scenes, AI will help make lots of things just a little bit better; will assist people without the cost of a therapist or personal coach or expensive consultant; will diagnose your health needs better than a human doctor and will drive your car more safely than you can. Amanda, an AI business coach, might help develop a new generation of entrepreneurs; while Microsoft has already quietly introduced an AI powered presentation coach into PowerPoint to stop those awful sessions where slides are read to you word for word (and a bunch of other common failings). What’s interesting is that Microsoft launched this with no fanfare or major publicity; it’s just there as a feature (check the Slide Show menu in PowerPoint Online). These are all happening today, even if you didn’t know about them.
The unremarked creep of AI into our day to day lives is the real insight. It’s not just the stuff of headlines and press releases that we should pay attention to. It’s the quiet, relentless adoption within our day-to-day lives. Like technology revolutions throughout the age, while some technologies are making headlines, it’s the almost invisible stuff that really changes the world.