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Davos, AI and revolution

Technology must complement human ability and potential rather than replace them 


In his address at Davos yesterday, Chinese president Xi Jinping quoted the opening line from Dickens’ dramatic historical novel A Tale of Two Cities, written of course, during the first industrial revolution.


It struck me how the book’s opening paragraph could be applied today in the week that the 45th President of the US will be sworn in.


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”


In this period of digital disruption and transformation, equivocation seems to be the name of the game. Take AI for example. It’s currently riding as the Grand Poobah of technology, and certainly the one with most momentum. It’ll be your back seat driver, it’s lighting up cities, it’s in your phone and already in your kitchen.


Our news this week reported that for enterprise and business, those who have already started on their journey into the world of AI, their revenues are greater than those who haven’t. It’s making money and facilitating growth. What’s not to like?


Well quite a bit really. This time last year a group of IT and scientific luminaries were voted Luddites of the Year by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) based in Washington DC.


Crazily enough, the group which included luminaries such as Prof. Stephen Hawking, Tesla CEO, Elon Musk and Apple co founder, Steve Wozniak, was regarded as being alarmist, after they penned an open letter, which although acknowledging the benefits of AI, also voiced concerns about autonomous weapons and the impact these could have on human beings. What if these super intelligent robots turned on their human creators? OK, the humans make the robots, but we all know about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and as for The Terminator, well for some, it’s starting to feel like rather like a documentary.


Then there’s the whole panic about jobs or the lack of them. Already this January, we’ve woken up to news about a sacked group of Japanese Insurance workers supplanted, by, you’ve guessed it, AI.


Let’s add some positivity. At Davos though enough conversations are being had that reassuringly make it feel that the lunatics aren’t taking over the asylum.


As far as the anticipated job quagmire, Ron Gutman founder and CEO, HealthTap reminded his audience about the new jobs that would be created, ones that don’t actually even exist today, made possible by new ecosystems spun into being by the likes of wearable technology for example.


Heard of “new collar” jobs? This idea was flagged up by the Big Blue’s big cheese Ginni Rometty. Ostensibly it hangs on the belief that skills required for future employment aren’t just high end, high tech ones that are acquired through traditional university routes, but rather many jobs will need skills that can be obtained through non-traditional routes and vocational training.


Everyone will need to understand AI and education systems will need a serious rebooting to support these clear and present needs.


During this interactive panel session about AI where the above points were raised, one principle was universally agreed: that technology must complement human ability and potential rather than replace them.


The consensus was that key to all of this is democracy (that double edged sword that has given us Brexit and a tweet-loving, seemingly shameless vulgarian as leader of the free world, but what’s the alternative?) Technology and access to it must be democratised to provide relevant skills and knowledge to all.


Panelists also agreed that ethical and legal concerns must be factored in at the start of the design process, underlining the importance for customers, lawyers, ethicists, scientists and technology developers to work together.


Highlighting the real need to democratise technology design, Joichi Ito, director, Media Lab, MIT, USA, talked of the valley of white men i.e the worrying demographic that Silicon Valley consists mostly of white men.

He cited an example of a face-recognition technology that failed (!!) to recognize dark faces, reflecting the lack of diversity among the engineers who designed it.


This need for diversity is equally matched with a need for transparency, to aid and abet the trust of so-called cognitive computing. Secret algorithms aren’t going to work here.


With the coming proliferation of AI across industry and society as a whole, traceability will be important. According again to IBM’s Rometty, people will want to know who designed a particular strain of AI technology, how it was done and using what data. All sounds good and tickety boo but the trouble is this technology is happening so fast that the infrastructure needed to cope with it just can’t keep up.


Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities illustrates the difficulties of applying the ideals of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ during the French revolution. In this information revolution the stakes are really high. There’s no doubt that AI can work for the greater good, but the paradox is, in reaching for this, we all have to be better humans.


Melony Rocque




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