How many times a day are you assisted by an algorithm? Take into account the digitalisation of calendars, navigation, entertainment recommendations, media content, and online shopping as a starting point and you can easily understand the collective scaremongering about Artificial Intelligence (AI). Many of these skills were once valued as human, created into jobs with titles, forming the basis of whole careers and supporting generations.
As a species that has evolved and assimilated to different environments, cultures and even workplaces, we curiously still respond to change with resistance. Yet despite all the disruption across industries since the turn of the century, we’ve adapted competently and indeed embraced phenomena such as Uber, Google and Facebook. For those who thought they’d never want to sleep in someone else’s bed, or borrow a dress from a complete stranger, there’s Airbnb or Rent the Runway. And for continuing sceptics, it’s worth remembering those who stocked up on canned goods pre-Y2K.
Toby Walsh, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of New South Wales, likes to remind people that any technology we haven’t yet adopted is often stigmatised as ‘Artificial Intelligence.’ Compare that to the less threatening term ‘algorithm,’ which refers to what we’ve accepted and generally now use without a moment’s thought.
Not that we should approach the oncoming seismic shift in human enterprise casually. Recently, CEO of Tesla, Inc. Elon Musk, publicly stated his belief that AI presents a fundamental existential risk for human civilisation. Why? A study from 2013 by Oxford University claimed that 47% of jobs will be automated in the next 25 years.
Professor Walsh condemns the Oxford study as it doesn’t take into account market forces that fundamentally shape the way we adopt technology. Some jobs that would take an enormous amount of resources to replace with AI—bicycle repair, for example—simply don’t balance financially. For Walsh, the human element of technology take-up adds unpredictability to what we will collect to enhance our lives along the way.
This human factor is the critical piece of the future puzzle.
‘Technology is completely morally neutral,’ Walsh stresses. ‘It’s we who get to make those choices.’ This is an empowering call-to-arms for those wary of dramatic change. Walsh’s message should encourage us: ‘The future is not fixed, it’s not something we have to adapt to. We choose the future we get to live in.’