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AI and Work: Moving Beyond Dystopia

“Let’s say you create a self-improving AI to pick strawberries,” Elon Musk said, “and it gets better and better at picking strawberries and picks more and more and it is self-improving, so all it really wants to do is pick strawberries. So then it would have all the world be strawberry fields. Strawberry fields forever.”

 

That sounds more like a vision of AI on drugs, and as John Lennon would no doubt tell Elon Musk “it’s nothing to get hung about.”  But more seriously, Elon Musk is clearly a bit freaked out and believes AI could constitute a serious existential threat to humanity and life on earth. In March of this year, Vanity Fair magazine published a fascinating exposé of Musk’s perspectives along with insights into how other leading members of the Silicon Valley set see AI and what it might be capable of doing.

 

AI is turning Japanese

 

Whichever side you’re on – the “doomsday” group or the “future is bright” group – Japan is probably a way better place to start than Silicon Valley when looking at what’s really happening with AI and robotics. The Japanese Government has a clear strategy to drive its economy forward using intelligent robots with a five-year-plan backed by more than 400 businesses and other organizations to grow its robotics market to over $21 billion.  Robots are to be used both in a complementary manner (helping humans) and in a substitutive way (replacing humans).

 

Japan has more artificial intelligence patents registered than any other country in the world. And while IBM leads the world as the company with the highest total of AI patents filed, IBM also acknowledged that as of July 2016 Japanese companies made up 40% of the list of AI patents filed in the US.

 

How far have they got with it all? For a nation so keen on filing AI patents Japan has, of course, embarked on an AI enabled patent filing process!  Furthermore Japanese insurer Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance began implementing AI in January, replacing 34 staff members in a move it said would save ¥140 million ($1.3 million) a year.  Another Japanese company Hitachi Ltd. says its artificial intelligence system has helped improve business performance by advising workers on how to increase their happiness. And, if all that hasn’t got your attention, try this one – the Japanese national Tax agency not only plans to use AI to automate responses to taxpayer inquiries and consultations, but also to select targets for investigation. (For more on AI in Japan check out some info here.)

 

A Future Without Work …

 

A recent HBR article concluded that while the jury is still out on the impact AI will have on jobs, what it will do is increase demand for, and the value of, people with good human judgement skills.  A very succinct statement along similar lines was made by entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk at HR Tech World in San Francisco earlier this summer:

 

“… as technology commoditizes shit that doesn’t matter, all of us are going to be forced into the things that actually do matter, which is people.

 

Professor Nick Bostrom, who will be a keynote speaker at HR Tech World in Amsterdam on 23 & 24 October, is head of Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute and author of the New York Times bestseller, Superintelligence – Paths, Dangers, Strategies.  In an interview with French newspaper Les Echos this summer, he explained that the ultimate goal of AI ought to be the complete disappearance of work.  He suggested that the opportunity exists to replace the need for humans to work, not only thanks to AI but thanks to automation in its entirety.

 

When you start to look at it like that, then it’s clear that if artificial intelligence poses an existential threat to anything at all it is probably to all those who believe in a world predicated on money, work, responsibility, authority and more work.  AI offers a chance to break free of those constraints, and as we automate more tasks and skills it can present us all with an opportunity to put our focus on things that really matter like taking responsibility for solving real world problems such as climate change, poverty, disease, inequality.

 

The Partnership for AI hints at that goal: “While there is broad agreement that AI advances are poised to generate great wealth, it remains uncertain how that wealth will be shared broadly. We do, however, also believe that there will be great opportunities to harness AI methods to solve important societal challenges.”  The group’s founding partners include Amazon, Apple, DeepMind, Facebook, Google, IBM and Microsoft. I guess the issue of sharing wealth is going to be the really tricky one! But, perhaps we should let AI solve that little problem too!

 

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