Speaking at the opening of the Centre for the Future of Intelligence last month, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking was asked about the implications of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on the human race. Sharing his belief that computers can emulate, and in fact exceed, human intelligence, Professor Hawking commented “the rise of powerful AI will be either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity. We do not yet know which.”
The statement epitomises the prevailing air of uncertainty around the implications of AI – will it be mankind’s crowning achievement, or lead to our ultimate demise? Now I can’t really argue with a man of Professor Hawking’s intellect and experience, but I sit firmly on the side of optimism, and believe we are seeing the advent of a new era in how humans relate with machines. There’s no doubt that progress, as with any great change, must be preceded by extensive and robust debate, and due consideration of likely consequences in order to mitigate any potential downsides.
I cannot however future gaze without feeling immense excitement about what the AI revolution holds for almost each and every aspect of our lives, and the benefits it will bring to our societies.
Encouragement for AI
And it seems I’m not alone. We conducted research last year into how the British public, largely well-informed on matters of technology, viewed AI and found a great deal of encouragement. The research showed that almost twice as many people believe AI can solve big world problems compared to those who think it is a threat to humanity – 42 per cent of respondents considered AI a positive force compared with only 21 per cent who saw it as a threat.
Public perceptions will no doubt continue to evolve as more people are exposed to AI-based technologies and sense their specific application and impact. My conviction remains that optimism will only grow with greater understanding. The ubiquity of technology has brought an explosion in data. This data, largely unstructured, needs to be managed. AI provides the means for harnessing this data to replicate human decisions and actions, unencumbered by our inherent shortcomings.
The worst-case imaginable of robots seizing control and becoming the master of mankind will be proved baseless as we progressively see the application of AI in specialist areas where humans just can’t operate as effectively. The role of people is to set the framework and boundaries and orient and manage the outcomes.
Bringing together the emotional intelligence of humankind and the precision and scalability of machine learning will achieve outcomes we never thought possible. In a data changing world, AI is already making a positive impact in a number of industries and is more likely to continue to offer practical improvements, innovation and efficiency, rather than any danger.
A fear commonly expressed is the effect AI can have on the future of jobs. If machines are able to learn the tasks we routinely perform, repeating them consistently and without the limitations of a standard working day, then what use are humans? While some occupations, particularly those based on non-emotional and repeatable tasks, may fear the short-term implications of AI on their jobs, history points to longer-term benefits. Technology and automation has been taking people out of factories and reducing the size of typing pools for years, but all the while it has created new roles and new opportunities. This has freed up the creative potential of humans and allowed them to spend their time developing their skills for emerging economies.
Across industries, new roles, skills and opportunities are on the rise. Looking at our industry, marketing, technology has transformed the roles and skillsets required. We are continually seeing the emergence of new roles that were not even in existence a decade or two ago, such as SEO consultants, social media experts and mobile and web app developers.
Optimism among marketers
Indeed, our 2016 What Marketers Really Think survey found general optimism among marketers as to how the digital transformation could affect their job prospects. The vast majority of EU marketers, 78 per cent, told us they didn’t feel threatened by data and technology, and 80 per cent in fact said that technological adoption is necessary for success. Through the application of data science to marketing, companies can seamlessly analyse the trillions of interactions consumers have on their journey from brand awareness through to purchase. The levels of data involved in this process are immense. Humans alone can’t perform this function.
The industry needs AI to fill the gaps in what marketers can and can’t do. As we enter the age of the data economy, companies are increasingly employing big data analysts and data scientists to uncover the insights that will drive business decisions. As technology and the capabilities of machine learning continue to evolve, these roles are going to be in greater demand.
AI will kill, but make jobs too
And while it’s impossible to predict what job developments AI will create in the future, it’s fair to suggest that for every task AI will replace there will definitely be a new, more interesting and effective opportunity created. This is happening, so let’s get ourselves ready. Data and technology skills need to be developed from a young age, meaning that schools, universities and training bodies need to have a curriculum in place that adapts to skills requirements in the workforce. With the proper safeguards and procedures in place the end of the world at the hands of robot armies is unlikely.
While AI may challenge the jobs we know today, the harmony of human and machine skills provides the promise of a new era of global achievement and prosperity. The compromise we need to make is in being adaptable to change and adopting the right skills and mindset for AI to succeed. A blend, a balance, a glorious relationship.
David Gosen, Managing Director and SVP, International, Rocket Fuel