Have Humans Gone Obsolete?

The question of human existence -whether as a species in general or just in the working world- has generated quite some concern around the world. Famous technologists and successful entrepreneurs such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk or Jaan Tallinn have responded with organisations like Future of Life Institute and OpenAI. They strive to protect human life from intelligent machines taking over the world.

Thanks to Paul O’Connell, founder and organiser of the Uprise Festival in Amsterdam, I had the opportunity to dive a bit deeper into this issue. As part of the Festival -already in its 3rd edition and coming to Dublin later this year- I was able to bring to the audience a panel of guest speakers with the goal of answering one bold question: are humans still relevant?

Together with David Vismans, chief product officer at the travel platform booking.com, Pieter Boon, partner at the data science company Xomnia, and Robert Verwaayen, partner at the venture capital firm Keen Venture Partners, we focused on the terminology used when talking about artificial intelligence, the relevance of technologies like machine learning in today’s businesses, and their impact on the future job landscape.

UpriseFestival_panel2

The Terminology

Artificial Intelligence is a term that was coined in the mid-1950s by John McCarthy describing the science and engineering of making machines intelligent. During the past 60+ years, thousands of scientists and engineers have been working on creating these intelligent machines. “Already in the 60s, a robot used image recognition to analyse the movement of an object to the left or right, but due to a lack of processing power it took up to 1 hour to calculate the next step. Today technology has caught up to make these machines powerful”, Verwaayen points out.

In the past years, we have seen a rising number of applications “using a very clear set of techniques to predict user behaviour and recommend users’ actions”, Vismans explains. “But today AI has become a loaded term, often misused for a variety of technical utilities to create intelligent systems.” In the engineering world, “data scientists still prefer to use the term machine learning”, says Boon.

At Keen Venture Partners, Verwaayen uses another term: distributed Intelligence. This takes a holistic approach combining all technologies around perception technologies, machine learning, big data analytics, and more. He classifies the various technologies in the following 3 areas:

  • IoT: the eyes and the ears of the Internet and machines,
  • Robots: the hands and feet to interact with our physical world, and
  • AI: interpreting the big sensor data available and acting in a smart way through the machines.

The term that seems most appropriate to me is machine intelligence, since I still doubt that a machine will ever replace human intelligence. A machine will always ‘think’ or ‘act’ differently, except when humans program it to do specific things in a human way.

The closest we can get to AI is with intelligent machines imitating human intelligence

Businesses of Today

With regards to the impact of AI on today’s businesses and product development, it seems that there is a pretty strong opinion that it is -or at least will be- huge. Vismans elaborates: “Machine learning has a fundamental impact on the quality of customer experience. In the near future product managers and engineers will need to be much more aware of where machine learning can be used to add product value. Over the next 5 years, people with this skill set will be very high in demand based on the enormous potential they can unlock for businesses.”

When we look at companies today, machine learning is typically part of a separate department, usually focused on big data & analytics. What we’ll see in the future is that the people working with big data & analytics will become an integral part of each business unit and project group, supplying their expertise to support each team directly with applying these techniques into the daily product development and customer service processes.

This means that machine learning will become a tool integrated at all levels, strategically as well as operationally

Jobs of Tomorrow

The intelligent machines of today can still be considered a weak form of AI. These are systems that are very good at one specific task. Although some of these seem quite smart (e.g. by winning against humans in complex games like GO), they are far from being strong AI or reaching the level of human intelligence. “We have no need to fear the replacement of jobs by a holistic, strong AI in the near future. For instance, we don’t even know how human creativity works”, Vismans points out.

Boon explains further: “Techniques such as image recognition are used for the purpose of behaviour detection to prevent attacks, analysis of technical issues such as cracks in aircrafts, or to prevent attacks or control a crowd”. All very specific tasks that assist human activity, but that cannot be performed without human supervision. Also, such tasks are limited by the way society handles liability and ethical issues.

In the mid- to long term, it seems undeniable that certain types of jobs will be replaced by intelligent machines

The American Truck Driver Association predicts that more than 8m jobs are at risk with the introduction of self-driving trucks. But also other types of jobs such as loan officers, information clerks, and assistants, as well as retail salespersons are at risk. Verwaayen’s opinion:“Repetitive, process-led jobs will be replaced since even having them outsourced in low cost countries will become too expensive and inefficient. This doesn’t mean massive unemployment, but it means humans will need to ‘skill up’ in the coming 5-10 years. Machine intelligence will move up to affect more complex jobs too, as we see happening already with robot advisors in the finance industry.”

So, are humans still relevant?

In my personal opinion, humans continue to be relevant, and will remain to be so also in the future. We have to adapt our society, economy and mindset in order to cope and -even more so- in order to benefit from this major leap in technology.

By taking the advancements one step at a time, our hands-on experience will help us in dealing with AI. The right guidance will come with the awareness of its effects on humanity. As Roy Bahat, head of the venture capital firm Bloomberg Beta, puts it:

Have more respect for the unknown