Just because we can advance, should we?

Oct. 11, 2017

Just because we can advance, should we?

Throughout history the human race has gone from strength to strength, solving problems and mastering available resources. We are not the physically strongest species in the animal kingdom, but in terms of creative problem-solving and tool-making abilities, we are second to none. However, it seems we may be creating a trap for ourselves — there is a threat looming on the horizon, and it is a threat of our own making. Are we using our superior cognitive ability to create monsters that will have the ability to rise up and dominate us?

AI has been a hot topic of conversation in the news recently, with leading figures such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking publically speaking out against advancements. Hawking has expressed fears that AI may evolve a lot quicker than humans, so that the created will outgrow its creator. Whilst we are proud of our historical achievements and advancements, it is predicted that the pace of our evolution will seem slow in comparison to the technological counterparts we develop and manufacture.

So what exactly is AI and should we really be worried about it practically affecting our working lives? Merriam-Webster dictionary defines AI as, “the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behaviour”.  

Recently The Hindustan Times reported how Union Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari has outwardly opposed driverless cars, saying, “in [India] where you have unemployment, you can’t have a technology that ends up taking people’s jobs.” This fear is not unwarranted, as Forbes estimates that “between 35 and 50 percent of jobs that exist today are at risk of being lost to automation.” The first sectors predicted to take the blow are ones where repetitive tasks are involved, such as manufacturing jobs. The Drum recently published a report on how AI will impact marketing, stating that over half (61%) of marketers surveyed believe AI will result in a loss of jobs. However, when probed further, 63% of these marketers were confident that when it comes to creativity, jobs will not become automated by AI.

Creativity cannot be reduced to a set of rules

This sentiment surrounding creativity is also echoed by Frey and Osborne in their paper, ‘The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?’ Computers are seen as trumping humans in areas such as task scalability, unbiased interpretation, and the lack of personal distractions — AI doesn’t need to eat, sleep, or get sick. However, recreating creativity still appears to be the Holy Grail of the technological world. Why is this objective so unattainable? Well, to computerise creativity would mean first establishing a clear definition of this mysterious quality. Creativity is a mixture of novelty and values, and these are areas that are extremely subjective. Without a solid definition, creativity cannot be reduced into a set of rules, meaning that whilst jobs that can be routinised are threatened, areas we cannot computerise are likely to stay in demand.    

Press stories around AI stealing jobs depict a very bleak ‘us and them’ scenario — the use of ‘them’ implying something like human status. Maybe our use of language around AI is partly to blame for contributing to our fears. In a MIT technology review, Jerry Kaplan entertains the view that AI would potentially be less problematic if it had been named something “less spooky”. Kaplan goes on to stress that we should avoid applying human attributes to AI — instead they should be seen as tools to help us. In Kaplan’s view, machines aren’t plotting to steal our jobs, they are simply doing the jobs we designed them for.

Computers lack common sense

Another aspect to consider is whether AI is actually successful in imitating intelligent human behaviour. In James Somers MIT technology review, ‘Is AI Riding a One-Trick Pony?’, he recalls his friend, Eyal Dechter, comparing AI to his two year old daughter. Whilst we can program computers to perform complex tasks, this is no substitute for human learning. A task such as baking a cake, is a relatively simple task to teach to a human being; however putting this into a computer program would be extremely complex — it would involve simplifying the task down to millions of micro stages. Humans are embedded in a world, and have a rich library of reference to help make sense of things when new experiences arise. One reason Dechter believes computers are “dumb” is because they cannot grasp the bigger picture. The lack of common sense and plasticity means that AI is relatively rigid and prone to failing when faced with unpredictable tasks.

The Drum report finds that 25% of marketers think AI will take over 20% of their daily jobs, but only 1% believe that AI will take 90 to 100% of their work — meaning most are optimistic that they will still be required in their current position. These statistics, along with the fact that AI lacks the plasticity and common sense of human learning, seem to imply that whilst AI may be implemented more in the workplace, in its current state it is not a sufficient replacement for most human workers. By this line of thinking, humans will be working more closely with machines, offloading repetitive tasks onto them, but a rise in AI will not necessarily threaten human interests. Humans possess the ability to interact, interpret and react to other humans and real-time situations. These qualities mean that we will be likely to grow with this new technological movement. Workplaces are already future-planning for technological change, with 84% aware that their employees will need to adapt their skills over the next 10 years (Deloitte).  

Technology is a hot topic, but this is not new. From Orwell’s 1984 novel, to the films Blade Runner and Ex Machina, fear of the unknown has manifested itself through many creative expressions. I agree with Kaplan that much of the perceived threat of AI is due to the way the ideas about it are filtered through human interpretation and language. Whilst jobs that can be routinised are more likely to be threatened than jobs in creative sectors, we should realise that most of what we do in the world involves our body in practical relation to other non-human objects; we aren’t fixed agents. New technology is a tool that allows us to explore and achieve things past our natural limitations.   

Ella Price is Marketing Executive at Beyond, a strategic creative agency specialising in feel-good brands.