One topic that my students are interested in and terrified of at the same time is the effect that Artificial Intelligence will have on their future, both in their personal and professional lives. They are concerned that the degrees they are studying will not lead to jobs as AI begins to master new abilities. Systems like IBM’s Watson and Google’s DeepMind are already capable of performing many complex tasks and each year there is progress towards AI that can be genuinely useful in everyday life.
Watson can produce business analytics reports in a fraction of the time it takes a consultant, and DeepMind can solve a problem without being given specific instructions. However, we are a long way from super-intelligence and most AI we see today is weak. Strong AI is on the horizon, and when the intelligence of AI surpasses humans, we will be relying on its abilities to get through the day.
There has been much speculation about how AI will impact work. To put this in perspective, think about the current workplace. What many people forget is the effect computers and technology have already had. Software has almost replaced finance departments and the stock markets are ruled and governed by algorithms.
We now get our work done faster and more efficiently; we have already begun to benefit from this. We can now communicate easier and without the need to travel to do our jobs (as much). AI will further improve this augmentation and will mean we can improve our work-life balance like never before. We are not going to become obsolete but instead enhanced.
Every industrial revolution has made people afraid of the power of new technologies in replacing skills. In fact, technology does not just do the same work, it usually does it better, faster and more efficiently. When factories came into existence, people feared they would be made obsolete, but we found new ways to employ people. The same will occur in the fourth industrial revolution. Machines will be able to work harder and longer than factory workers and will not be tired and ill like humans. Factory work in itself is a sad prospect for a person, when it involves primarily physical and repetitive tasks, and automating this sector of work is not just going to increase profit but also reduce degradation.
As sites like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk prove, there is a considerable need for a human element in AI. Mechanical Turk is an online marketplace for workers who can help AI, performing tasks such as tagging and classifying content. In the coming years, there will be much more demand for these kinds of workers, and it will likely be more of a common occurrence for people to be able to work from home and spend more time with the ones they love, rather than performing tedious, monotonous tasks in a factory. Recent trends suggest that people are becoming more necessary in moderation of video and social media sites and there will undoubtedly be more of a need for workers in this area in the future.
New kinds of work are also emerging. The gig economy is already proving popular with companies like Uber and Deliveroo providing services that are disrupting traditional industries. Being able to choose when you work and using technology to augment their skills (for example, with Uber drivers using mapping instead of learning the streets) means people can have more flexible workdays, and they can adapt as to their family’s needs. Upwork and Indeed are providing places for people with technical skills to be paired with clients, and this is opening up new opportunities and markets for people all over the world.
The future may also see a basic minimum income if there is a real shortage of jobs, allowing the economy to continue even though many people may not be working. This will transform our lives and could result in us spending more of our time helping friends and family rather than helping large corporations to make more money.
Algorithms have already become part of our daily routine. The nature and purpose of these algorithms will have a profound effect on people in the future. They will choose what we see (for example on social media), how much we pay for services, the opportunities we have based on our profiles, and they will become more integral to decision making in organisations. Bad players will always exist, and choices we make about our digital life will affect the physical world in a way that has never been seen before.
Like always, we will find a way for our society to continue. While change is coming, and at a faster rate than before, it will mean a future where machines and people work together in ways only previously imagined in science fiction.