Perhaps it’s because I have less runway ahead of me than behind me or perhaps it’s because of being in the IT industry for three and half decades but I find myself marvelling at and sometimes bewildered by, the exponentially accelerating pace and scope of advances in science and technology. Recently, in response to alarming headlines about job destruction and Artificial Intelligence (AI) getting away from us, I’ve been wondering where it’s all heading for the apex primate – humankind.
A brief history of mankind
When you look at the mammal that is Homo sapiens in the context of geological time, the 200,000 years we have been around is a tiny, tiny amount of time – a mere 0.00004% of Earth’s existence. And yet here we are, living in the Anthropocene epoch (recently named for us by climatologists and geologists). This epoch is so named because for the first time in the 4.1-billion-year history of life on Earth we humans, as a species, are changing what happens to and on the planet, rather than simply being the observers and subjects of natural forces.
In that 200,000 years since Homo sapiens first emerged in Africa and spread across the planet we have evolved to become a “reasonably smart” apex primate at the top of the food chain in a closed system called planet Earth (although we have already made our presence felt in other parts of the solar system).
You could argue that we’re only “reasonably smart” because whilst we are sentient, have consciousness, self-awareness, intellectual capacity, language, moral reasoning, and the ability to create, we haven’t yet figured out how to live without degrading our own environment through pollution, over-population, over-exploitation of natural resources and species extinction. Only “reasonably smart” because whilst we create great art, music, literature, food, science and technologies and new industries we haven’t yet figured out how to stop warring with each other, to transcend tribalism and racism, or to curb the greed and corruption whereby the few predate upon the many. Only “reasonably smart” because although we’ve made great strides in medicine and healthcare we have not yet figured out how to cure dread diseases, prevent obesity, build equitable, inclusive economies or provide universal healthcare.
The greatest show in the universe
These “reasonable smarts” come to us courtesy of arguably the most amazingly complex “thing” in the universe – the human brain. With its estimated 86,000,000,000 to 100,000,000,000 neurons and 3,440,000,000,000,000 to 4,000,000,000,000,000 synapses it accounts for roughly 2% of our body mass yet consumes around 20% of the oxygen and energy we take in. It is this human brain and its astonishing capacities that keeps us alive on daily basis, that enables us to dominate other animals and that accounts for all human progress and the massive impact we have had on the planet despite having been here for only 0.00004% of the earth’s history. And, it is this amazing brain that has helped us to develop and master the various technologies that have brought us this far; from fire to fission and everything in between.
Yet, despite this awesomeness, the human brain may not be sufficient to ensure our survival as a species. Whilst there is still much to discover about how the brain works we do know that it suffers from the fact that it is trapped in a physically constrained space – the skull – and is subject to metabolic limitations. The prefrontal cortex, where we do most of our reasoning, appears to be able process no more than five to seven discrete pieces of information at any one time, and the myth of multitasking is just that – a complete myth. Our individual brains, in other words, are ill-equipped to deal with either the size or dynamism of some of the challenges we now face. That’s one of the reasons we find it so hard to execute the dictum that “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it” (commonly attributed to Einstein) – it’s hard to change consciousness when its seat doesn’t change. The world in which our current brains evolved no longer exists and, per evolutionary science, it will take somewhere in the region of one million years for any significant changes in our human capabilities. So, we will need to look elsewhere for solutions to the many pressing problems such as how to feed an additional two billion people on shrinking amounts of arable land and how to manage traffic congestion and safety in rapidly urbanising societies, how to provide sufficient energy for economic development or manage epidemics or maximise corporate profits without harming society and so on.
The digital brain
Help is at hand. We now stand at the dawn of a Digital Revolution, one which promises socio-economic upheaval as profound as that which followed previous agricultural and industrial revolutions. Whereas the plough, the steam-engine and the production technologies of yesteryear augmented our physical capabilities this new Digital Revolution, with its data generation, information processing and communication technologies is about augmenting our mental capabilities. Pre-eminent among the multi-faceted technologies that underpin the Digital Revolution is Artificial Intelligence.
As we embed sensors in more and more things in the world (including ourselves) and this cyber-physical world creates unprecedented volumes and velocities of data we must use AI to make sense of it as our brains are simply not up to the task of dealing with the velocity and volumes of data.
Unlike our brains, and courtesy of Moore’s law, we can scale up silicon-based capabilities in a largely unrestricted fashion – it’s not bound by the physical limitations of the human skull or by the metabolic need for sleep – and this is enabling us to deliver AI capabilities that were the stuff of science fiction only a few years ago. There is much debate as to when (and whether) AI will exceed human intelligence with futurists such a Ray Kurzweil (who claims an 86% accuracy rate for the 147 predictions he has made since the 1990s) positing 2045 as the year when the Singularity will occur. The Singularity being the point in time at which AI leads to machines that are smarter than human beings.
But, you may say, AI is not new and for every success there have been many failures and it’s nowhere close to matching human general intelligence. So, what is different this time? Well, your assertions would be right on all counts but the answer to your question is “plenty”.
Advances in technology
The last few years have seen spectacular improvements in capability and affordability on several fronts that feed into Artificial Intelligence. The pace of this Digital Revolution has no historical precedent we can refer to; advances in science and technology are combinatorial and exponential in nature, intersecting in ways we battle to anticipate and because of which jobs, industries and societies are being disrupted.
There have been improvements in computing technologies, especially Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) to the point where super-computing and massive memory is affordable and therefore widely available, significant improvements in algorithms (not least of which is Deep Learning) and massive sets of data on which to train new AI models using techniques like Machine and Deep Learning. And all of this is set to accelerate as the Internet of Things (IoT) takes hold allowing us to create and “feed” real-time data into Digital Twins that will represent all sorts of artefacts from the real world (including humans). The possibilities are endless and limited only by our imaginations and ethical considerations, the ramifications can be scary, and the process is unstoppable.
It is now up to us as individuals, workers, parents, managers, leaders, companies, governments and societies to understand and evaluate these trends and technologies and to ask how can we ensure this new technology serves us? How will we apply it to help make the world run better and improve people’s lives?
The (narrow) usefulness of AI
The answer lies in understanding that today’s AIs are very narrow – they can do certain specific tasks, but only those tasks, astonishingly well. So, it’s about picking the most valuable use cases, understanding that for certain tasks, where efficiency, repeatability, neutrality, speed and big sets of data are the norm the narrow intelligence of today’s AI is often superior to humans when it comes to getting a job done. It’s also about having a mindset of embedding these new tools into both existing or new business processes and models in such a way that we can take the “work out of work” and free our people up to do the things that only humans can do; imagining, empathising, relating, creating and solving complex problems. This last point is worth emphasising; AI cannot envision, it cannot innovate, it doesn’t empathise, it cannot synthesise new solutions to complex problems. What it can do is tackle the routine, mundane, dangerous activities that make work a less than stellar experience for millions of people – so that those people can bring their talents to bear on the world’s challenges in a more engaging fashion.
It is about taking tools such as machine learning and applying them to the data you already have (or will generate through new capabilities such as social listening, IoT or visual processing) to generate new insights, to make life and work safer, easier and more productive, and to design innovative competitive capabilities.
As we stand at the beginning of a new age for humanity, one where we can use Artificial Intelligence for good, it is up to us to explore ways to make sure technology serves us well. We don’t yet know where it will take us but we do know that we must get started.
Have you asked yourself how your organisation is using Artificial Intelligence today?