Will Lord Sugar one day point to a robot candidate on The Apprentice and say ‘you’re hired’? Recent developments in AI (artificial intelligence) means it’s a question many leaders, economists and technologists are asking.
In March, 2016, a computer beat a human at the complex Chinese board game, Go, for the first time. Though Korean, Lee Sedol, showed he could still adapt in ways Google’s Deep Mind AlphaGo couldn’t. AlphaGo’s neural networks mimic those in the brain, allowing it to analyse massive amounts of digital data. Its machine learning capabilities are making their way into real world applications, helping them recognise faces and speech commands.
In November last year, Google applied machine learning to its Translate app. Nearly overnight, the text it produced was almost indistinguishable from a professional, human, translation. The New York Times Magazine called it The Great AI Awakening.
Google and Uber are already trialling driverless cars. But they are not yet autonomous. And would we want them to be? Millions are employed around the world as taxi, van and truck drivers. What happens when machines take the wheel? Will humans be redeployed as driverless vehicle supervisors? Or will they be usurped by machines?
And how many other jobs are at risk? Many, including MIT and The Economist, have claimed up to 50% of jobs could be lost. Market research company, Forrester, says 6% of US jobs will go by 2012. Forbes reckons jobs in ten industries are under threat, including healthcare, financial services and law. Reports suggest nurses already follow IBM’s question-answering computer, Watson’s, guidance in 90% of cases.
If machines take our jobs, will governments need to provide each of us with a universal basic income, an unconditional sum separate from anything we earn ourselves? Perhaps. It’s also possible technology will help us in our jobs and creates new ones, instead of taking them away from us. Take Microsoft’s Project Oxford. It helps developers build more intelligent apps, thanks to a range of tools, including voice recognition, speech processing and language understanding. It therefore helps developers achieve things they’d never have time to do on their own.
Bob Moritz, CEO of professional services firm PwC, is optimistic. Based on his conversations with CEOs, companies will always be in the market for what robots cannot provide.
“We’re still looking for creativity, because that can’t be coded,” he said. “Robotics and computers and coding actually gives you a very straight and narrow path to go down a fine course. The world we’re living in today is a lot more zig zag, and people are going to be important to that equation to solve those problems.”
One thing is for sure - massive changes are on the way. And we’re going to need all the human ingenuity we can muster to adapt to them, survive and thrive.