Artificial Intelligence & Transformative Technologies

In this 3rd article in the series ‘The Future of Work’ Pete Wilson discusses the advances in Artificial Intelligence and other potentially transformative technologies, and how they will impact our working lives.

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Milton Friedman
Milton Friedman

In the 1960’s the Nobel Laurate economist Milton Friedman was apparently engaged in consulting work with the government of a developing Asian nation.  He was shown a large-scale public works project by a very proud government minster and was very surprised to see a relatively large number of the workers wielding shovels as opposed to readily available bulldozers, tractors or other heavy earth-moving equipment. Reputedly Friedman asked about this and the minster explained that the project was intended as a ‘jobs programme.’ Friedman’s reply has become famous: “So then, why not give the workers spoons instead of shovels?”

The moral of this story is very clear, if you want to supress progress then focus on inputs, i.e. the tools and not outputs, i.e. the end result. There has always been tension between advancing, emerging technologies and jobs. Do we employ the best of our knowledge and innovation to the betterment of humankind, or do we settle for the status quo. In the same vain a similar question could be, “if it’s jobs we want, why not ‘disinvent’ the computer and issue chalk and slate?”

We are on the verge of a series of major advancements in technology that will make the advancements in agricultural machinery in the mid-19th century seem like a baby step.

Moore’s Law

In 1965 Gordon Moore, a scientist and at that time the director of research and development (R&D) at Fairchild Semiconductor observed that: …..“the number of components (transistors, resistors, diodes or capacitors) in a dense integrated circuit had doubled approximately every year”… he further speculated that…..“it would continue to do so for at least the next ten years”…..In 1975, he revised the forecast rate to approximately every two years.1971

As a direct comparison to today’s Intel Skylake microprocessor, if the 1971 Intel 4004’s transistors were blown up to the height of a person, the Skylake devices would be the size of an ant.

This postulation about exponential increase in component density became known as ‘Moore’s law’. The ‘law’, which isn’t a law but actually an observation, may well have run out of steam given the availability of the materials we currently have to work with. Present dayWhat ‘Moore’s Law’ actually delivered was an indication of travel of price ‘v’ performance, power consumption and ‘clock speed’. In other words much higher computing power for a similar, attainable price.   The ‘law’ has become a self-fulfilling prophecy and an aspiration that has driven the computing industry. Generally speaking, advancements in technology and computing are exponential, as one advancement in the field leads to one more, not two more, but many more.   We’ve seen similar exponential growth in other areas of technological innovation.

Insofar as microprocessors and processing power are concerned we are now at, or nearing ‘peak density’. Fear not though, because we are on the cusp of another huge breakthrough in the form of Quantum Computing. If realised the size of the leap from the classic computer model to quantum, will be akin to the leap from the abacus to a present day supercomputer. The classic computing model is based on the state of an electrode, whether it’s ‘on’ (1) or ‘off’ (0), we then use a series of these binary states and Boolean algebra to describe and manipulate ‘data’. In effect the classical model is a queue, albeit a very fast queue. QuantumThe efforts we described above with regard to processor density is all about how fast we can get work through the queue, Quantum Computing takes a totally different approach. Based on the laws of quantum physics, the quantum computer would gain enormous processing power through the ability to be in multiple states, as opposed to either just ‘on’ or ‘off’. Effectively the quantum computer will be able to perform tasks using all possible permutations – simultaneously.

Practical examples of where quantum computers will be transformational are firstly in pure problem solving such as cryptology. Current problems will have the brute force of quantum thrown at them and will be solved in seconds. Add this kind of processing power to AI (see below) and it isn’t hard to visualise the positive changes that will occur in our lives. For example IBMs Watson computer system, beat human champions at Jeopardy by reviewing large amounts of unstructured data.  In the test Watson didn’t have access to the internet, so imagine Watson, driven by a quantum computer, with access to the Internet.  The possibilities here are mind boggling.

The Internet of Things (IOT)

We are witnessing the birth of the Internet of Things (IoT). Basically, if you can get power to a ‘thing’ in the home, office or practically anywhere, then you can add a processor to it and connect it to Wi-Fi/Internet and to other ‘things’.   IoT is sometime referred to as the Internet of Everything, (IoE). IoT is essentially centred on an increase in machine-to-machine communication. If you can power it then you can collect data, connect it to the internet and make sense of your environment.  The combination of wireless/broadband access, miniaturisation and cheaper microprocessors has made IoT possible. The IoT is built on cloud computing and on networks of data-gathering sensors. ‘Things’ can be mobile (such as wearable technology) or static (e.g. home/office automation sensors). Previously ‘inanimate’ objects, the function of which was to be either ‘on’ or ‘off’, will have the capability of sensing and measuring their environments and will interact with other objects in the network.  Most experts agree that IoT will blossom in the period to 2020.

IoT is already saving lives. In the health and fitness sector the oft referred to ‘connected health’ devices have boomed. There are a number of commercially available wearable devices that will monitor blood pressure and heart rate for example. As these devices are connected to the internet, via a home wireless network, patients that need close monitoring can share the data with health practitioners.  Other advances are envisage in the area of Smart cities, where for example, virtual road signs and road markings have sensors and can communicate digitally with other and with cars, so better enabling cars to co-exist with other modes of transport and calm/route traffic accordingly. If you match this with advances is self-driving cars it’s not hard to imagine the time when you’ll set your arrival time at work. Your phone will alarm at the exact time for you to meet the ‘pod’ at your door, having booked it via a phone app on a pay-per-use basis, which will take the right route to get you to the office on time. Amongst other things IoT is technology’s answer to reducing energy usage and tackling environmental issues.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

…advances in AI are accelerating and many of us will have ‘digital bosses’ by 2030.

The constituent parts of AI

Also termed Conscious Technology, many commentators believe that that AI could see systems that come close to matching our own human capability. AI has been further sub-divided into Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) and SuperIntelligence.  The most optimistic of predictions, or pessimistic depending on your world view, is that AI could exceed human capabilities and better us in every area of intellectual endeavour. This brings about the potential of it behaving in ways beyond our current understanding. AI is actually a number of different technologies, all of which are currently making major advancements.

At the core of AI is the ability to learn from previous experience, this area of AI is called Machine Learning. Learning is all well and good, but if you can’t communicate it isn’t much use so a series of advancements are being made in such areas as Natural Language Processing (NLP) & speech in order to understand and respond in the spoken word.  Technology is provided with ‘vision’ via tools such as Machine Vision (MV) and image recognition. A good commercial example of this is Microsoft’s Kinect, which basically uses a webcam and an infra-red projector to detect motion and respond accordingly. The Kinetic also includes natural language software so you can interact through the spoken word.     Human judgements are increasingly being made based on the work of Expert Systems such as medical and legal systems. Essentially Experts Systems, provide decision making support and ‘advice’ and are designed to solve complex problems by reasoning about encapsulated knowledge.

The final jigsaw in the realisation of human computer interaction is Robotics. Whilst speech or text to screen is appropriate in most circumstances in others, a physical output is required.  Robotics in the traditional sense of the word is about the marrying of electrical engineering and AI to form a mechanical device that can interact with its surroundings, autonomously. Essentially all of the technologies detailed above, but with the inclusion of a mechanical device for physical outputs. In terms of how advances in robotics will affect the workplace there’s a great example in the fast food industry. The drive for rises in the minimum wage makes investment in automation a more attractive option. Burger automation has been on the cards for at least 2 years, what has held it back has been the investment required relative to human burger makers. That time has gone as basic/minimum wages rise and burger robots are just around the corner. Clearly there is a business case to be made for automation, many products/outputs will benefit from the consistency that automation will bring. That business case will become ever more attractive as other costs rise, including labour, and the price of automation falls.

Most experts agree that the next 10 years will see the emergence of more highly intelligent and adaptive personal ‘ecosystems’. Our intelligent agents, or PAs will learn from our behaviours, our body language and our mood to truly understand us. It will read us, and our family dynamic, or office dynamic via IoT sensors. They will act on our behalf in the digital realm, anticipate our requirements and they will provide us with timely information and guide our choices.

Advances in AI and a firmer vision of what it could do has given rise to Transhumanism, an intellectual movement that combines advances to envision the next version of human kind, Human + or so called Post Human. Technologies that make this vision a real possibility are, as we’ve discussed previously, Super-intelligence and Stem-cell technology, Nano technology, Bio-technology and Cognitive science.  These are technologies that are in place now, and are undergoing huge advancements.

AI will absolutely transform the workplace. Combine AI and the tech savvy employees of Generation Z and we’ll see the next major series of transformations more and more being led by employees, bottom up rather than top down. Employees, will be facilitated rather than directed in making improvements. More and more of the human decision making and ‘judgements’ that are currently in the scope for human intervention, will be will be available via AI. We are already seeing this in the area of Law. Two years ago commentators predicted that AI ‘bots’, who will carry out low level associate work, never get tired and work 24/7, will precede the structural collapse of the legal profession. How do senior lawyers gain the appropriate expertise if they’ve never had to serve their time as Associates?

Human Computer Interaction & response systems are also making great advances. Amazon Echo is a great example.  The Echo is both a speaker and a microphone that will sit quietly in the corner of your room until you wake it up with a special command. You can then use voice control to interact with other services in your home, such as heating, music etc. You can ask it questions about your calendar, the weather and traffic in your area. As more and more services join the Echo service, the more useful it is becoming.

So What?

I recently wrote about the looming generational crisis which involves a sharp contraction in the working age population. It’s clear that a solution must be found if countries such as Germany, Brazil, Russia and Canada are to avoid a managed decline. Set this against the background of rising labour costs in developed countries, and it’s clear that we’re facing a real crisis to which we need answers. Automation is one such answer, but that answer will bring about its own problems. As we’ve seen automation, AI and robotics will penetrate across the spectrum of jobs. So there’s a major task ahead in terms of  ‘re-rolling’, sometime referred to as ‘retooling’, large sections of the existing workforce away from jobs which are vulnerable to automation.

The ways with which we interact with technology is changing, as is the way in which it interacts with us. There will be no limits on the availability of data with which your office technology can interact and processing times will be millions of times faster. You will be able to invite your office ‘bot’ into a meeting, via the ‘spider’ on the desk, it will monitor the conversation, and will suggest approaches, ways forward and solutions. The office ‘bot’ will be capable of monitoring staff ‘sentiment’ and will understand staff issues in real time. Current ‘virtual’ working will also be transformed, with always on connections during working time, such that geographically dispersed teams will genuinely feel as though they are in the same room. The ‘team room’ will also include an additional member, the team ‘bot’, who will intervene as required. The human office worker will spend more time on real added value client facing/relationship building work. People that previously performed back office, routine work will be replaced and will need to develop different skills.

Unless of course humankind decides to remove the shovel, and re-issue the spoons.  


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Published by Pete Wilson

Pete has worked in the technology and business change space for over 30 years. He's worked globally for large public sector and governmental bodies and for large private sector multinationals across numerous industry sectors.

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