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14 October 2015

How do we activate in the face of an AI takeover?

Written by: Mia O'Brien, Edelman Apprentice 2015 at Edelman

Innovation, Technology

Artificial Intelligence. Robotics. Disruptive technology. It seems those words have garnered such publicity of late that they are beginning to lose their inherent fear factor. Has Will Smith and his coterie of anti-AI heroes desensitized us to the threats of a robot rebellion? Are we simply willing to accept the inevitable advances of AI and take a passive stance to its gradual yet deeply profound consequences?

A few weeks ago I had the honour of hearing Martin Ford present his newly award-listed book: The Rise of the Robots. A group of Edelman’s technology specialists sat attentively, after all Ford’s predictions not only have a bearing for those who take an interest in tech, they call into question the future of employment.

The key argument put forward by Ford is this: we will be faced by mass employment disruption through the empowerment of clever machines. The jobs that are most threatened are those that have been the bedrock of our economy for the past 100 years. Today those make up 90% of jobs in the U.S economy (to take a statistic from Ford’s presentation). Think of the role of horses in the 19th century compared to today, once having an utmost critical function in connecting economies.

The difference today is that growth is no longer linear, it’s exponential due to increasing computer processing power and speed of digital communication. In addition, it’s pervasive in its ability to sweep across industries from lorry drivers to lawyers – no one will be immune. And consequently, by depriving many of us of our purchasing power and sense of purpose, a fundamental source of economic growth is undermined.

So what silver lining could Ford possibly offer? Well, we have no choice but to adapt. Our economies need to continue creating new areas of employment, industry and innovation, while our political parties need to accommodate for mass job displacement. He proposes the radical idea of a state allowance for the jobless. More than anything, he suggests that we need to invest in innovation while leveraging AI efficiency.

Naturally, having not received the rosiest picture of future employment, a rather anxious Q&A ensues. A few questions on “quantitative easing” go over my head before I decide to tentatively raise my own hand and inquire on what seems to be a part of our dwindling arsenal: emotional intelligence. “Will AI robotics ever be capable of thinking and feeling like we do?” In response to my question, Ford alludes to existential claims made by some of the greatest minds of the century, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking. He brushes these off with alarming nonchalance: “that possibility won’t matter…not for another 40 years.” Perhaps, if you’re 50 years old I think to my 22 year-old self.

The mind boggles. Given the ubiquity of social media, apps and new modes of digital consumerism, I can’t help but think whether robots are becoming more human or perhaps we’re becoming more robotic? Our relationships are becoming increasingly digitalised as our hands become glued to our smart phones. Meanwhile, we outsource thinking through online searches whilst our concentration span reaches new estimated lows.

The question I ask myself is will the robot ever be able to laugh at itself? Stay switched on and we’ll find out.

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