Nowhere in the tech industry is there more hype, panic and excitement than around artificial intelligence. It’s a subject that has legends like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk up in arms, and it’s always guaranteed to get attention when discussed in the media.
We’ve spent such a long time ruling the roost on this planet, that the thought of another being taking over – whether it has a beating heart or not – is both shocking and terrifying. And the fact that we might be creating our own demise is what’s getting experts across the board involved.
But AI isn’t new. It hasn’t happened in secret, hidden away in laboratories in military-guarded compounds. So then why does it feel like it’s shrouded in mystery, fear and controversy? Well, it might have something to do with the terms used. And that AI mainly hits the headlines when it’s to do with robots, the apocalypse, or mechanical overlords.
It’s been part of our lives for a long time, and in less sensationalist ways than some may realise. The facial recognition tool that helps you tag people on Facebook? AI. The TV and film recommendations on Netflix? Also AI. And don’t say that you feel threatened by it there. It’s simply helping us out by doing the thinking for us – thinking that’s pretty mundane, and stops us from doing more important things.
That’s what the future of AI holds. It’s not going to replace us. It’s simply going to do the ‘less human’ jobs for us. And that will leave us with plenty of opportunities to discover what really makes us human.
“What’s in a name? A rose by any other…”
One of the first things to address with AI is the term itself. Artificial intelligence has many connotations, most of which stem from pop culture. From Spielberg’s A.I. to The Terminator series, the focus is always on sentient AI. It thinks, feels, reacts and develops just like a human would. It makes for some awesome plot-lines – but doesn’t do much to help the understanding and reputation of AI in the real world.
So, is it time to differentiate between different kinds of artificial intelligence? AI is fine when we’re talking about sentient robot overlords, or uncanny models like those in Westworld, but when we’re looking at the machine learning in map apps or Spotify recommendations, it doesn’t seem right.
Intelligent technology – or machine intelligence – sounds far less dramatic. There’s no preconceptions of human-replacing, just well, intelligent technology. It’s the Ronseal description: it does exactly what it says on the tin. Technology that helps us out when we need it, and that can free us up to do the work and develop the skills that we should focus on. By removing artificiality from the phrase, it sheds the evocative image of replacing humans. So, from here on in, I’ll stick to calling it intelligent technology.
How robots can make humans more ‘human’
Everyone’s seen the statistics. PwC states that more than 10 million workers in the UK – the equivalent of 30% of workers – could be replaced by automation over the next 15 years. It’s a scary thought: why are we creating machines that could push a high percentage of British people into poverty?
Well, this is when we need a glass-half-full mentality. Letting intelligent technology take over mundane, low-skilled, dangerous jobs could be a perfect solution. But only if the socio-economic background is right. Leading think tanks are urging the government to invest in skilling up workers at risk, giving them the chance to take new opportunities. Just imagine that – a world where people can do the jobs they want to do, rather than the ones they feel they have to.
When people are released from the shackles of monotonous, task-based jobs, we can pursue careers in what interests us. We can learn what makes us truly human – our empathy, our emotional intelligence – and realise our full potential. For example, look at customer experience. Using intelligent technology, businesses can deliver a highly personalised, consistent level of service 24/7/365. By giving repetitive tasks and FAQ-related queries to a bot, it frees up people to answer complex questions and build relationships.
Automation and intelligent technology will take away the grudge work. It’s going to force us to re-evaluate what our unique ‘human-ness’ is, and how we can use it in the workplace.
Democratising or demonising intelligent technology?
Intelligent technology will offer humanity a lot. From discovering what makes people ‘people’, to developing skills we need more of in the world, we could become almost unrecognisable over the next few centuries. Approaching intelligent technology with the right balance of optimism and caution will get us there. Scientists are right to prepare for the development of sentient AI – but it shouldn’t detract from the magic it could bring to our lives.
When you don’t have access to new technology, and your only understanding of it comes from the media or pop culture, it’s easy to believe the fear. To combat this, more people need to get their hands on intelligent technology. They need to understand the benefits and how it works – and see the difference between hyped up, sentient AI, and intelligent technology.
And then it needs to be democratised. If intelligent technology is only used by a select few, the fears will grow quickly. Like any new tech, it needs to be spread far and wide, and used by a huge range of people for different applications. Back in the 80s, it was Microsoft’s vision to have a PC on every desk. Back then, the PC was the disrupting tech, making people sceptical and cynical. Now, our challenge has moved on from PCs to AI. Every organisation and every person should use intelligent technology confidently and in a way that improves lives. Whether that’s using spellcheck in a Word doc or facial recognition in Windows 10, it’s there for the taking.
You can learn more about the future of AI – of intelligent technology – at Microsoft Future Decoded. Taking place on the 31st October and 1st November, it gives you the chance to explore AI, and everything it could bring to your business.