Unlocking the full potential of artificial intelligence will require a strong human element.
When NAB announced 6000 job cuts in November, it was a stark reminder of how automation is reshaping the business world. This seismic technological shift is creating plenty of anxiety, ranging from fear of mass unemployment to that of a killer-robot apocalypse. Tesla co-founder Elon Musk even argues that artificial intelligence (AI) poses a fundamental threat to human existence.
But amid the dystopian predictions, some excitement is growing about the potential of the technology. A report released last August, prepared by economics consultancy AlphaBeta, found that harnessing AI could add $2.2 trillion to the Australian economy by 2030.
Agriculture, manufacturing and mining are already swept up in the automation wave, while venture capitalists are backing financial services, rolling out, for example, neutral robotic planners that alert users to better deals. One such company is Credit Karma, which charges lenders and banks for every referral and last year announced $US500 million (about $660 million) of revenue.
Beyond the realm of business, there are myriad opportunities for automation to do good. For disaster relief, Honda’s prototype waterproof robot, unveiled in October, can fit through 30-centimetre gaps and has inbuilt laser rangefinders, cameras and an infra-red light projector. In health care, a tiny origami robot can be swallowed and will unfold in the stomach, where it can patch the lining or safely remove an ingested object. Other applications include disinfection robots that keep bugs at bay in hospitals, automated dispensers that fill prescriptions ATM-style, exoskeletons to help the paralysed walk and microbots that travel through your bloodstream to deliver medicine. Microsoft even has an app called Seeing AI that narrates the world to blind people.
As for job losses, the McKinsey Global Institute concludes that while almost half of work activities can potentially be automated, less than five per cent of jobs can be entirely replaced.
Machines will increasingly handle jobs that are dirty, dangerous or boring, freeing up people for creative, cognitive tasks. “Human work will be more human,” concludes AlphaBeta director Andrew Charlton. With the need for a new skills base rapidly rising, smart employers, he says, will be retraining their staff now.
Such is the skills shortage that The New York Times reports that AI specialists, including PhDs straight from university, are commanding $US300,000 to $US500,000 packages (about $395,000 to $660,000) as tech companies and carmakers compete for limited talent. Google and Facebook hold “deep learning” classes to upskill existing employees.
At the same time, in a project called AutoML, Google is developing a machine-learning algorithm that learns to build other machine-learning algorithms – in other words, AI technology that can create more AI systems. Responding to public disquiet, DeepMind, the UK artificial intelligence company owned by Google, has launched a research unit focused on the ethical and social implications of AI.
As physicist Stephen Hawking said in 2016, “The rise of powerful artificial intelligence will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity. We do not yet know which.”