The Renaissance of Humanity
Nicole Büttner-Thiel, September 30th 2019
10 Reflections on the Impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI)
AI, machine learning and robotics have become omnipresent in daily life and headlines. While innovators are ravishing that it can eradicate close to all of humanity’s problems and data and machines will in future take all the decision. At the same time, the public debate about the impact of these technologies is often fundamentally pessimistic painting a picture of superintelligent machines taking over the world to dominate and eventually eradicate the human race. The response to this is often defensive, trying to fend off disruptive forces to preserve a status quo and even idealize a world without technology. So we are basically presented with a choice between a world of technology or a world of humanity.
This framing is fundamentally not helpful or constructive because it relies on creating an irreconcilable polarity. Instead, these ten aspects are an invitation to a scenario between technology desert and “Heidiland” without tech. They provide some food for thought how we can overcome this dichotomy and create a future where not only it is possible to reconcile a love for technology and humanity, but rather one where technological advancement leads to a meaningful rediscovery and deepening of “humanness” and humanity.
Time to delegate
“Machines are taking the work of humans” we often hear from people concerned with the automation of certain tasks. This is the wrong way to frame the issue though. Let’s consider the possibility that humans have been doing the work of machines for way too long. So actually, it’s about time technology is relieving us from the dull, dangerous and dirty jobs and frees us for jobs involving more creativity and problem-solving. There is no reason we should put people in jobs where they need to risk their health, if a machine can do the job. Why should we not enhance diagnostic abilities of doctors with machine learning algorithms to detect health anomalies more effectively? Technology can significantly enhance human capabilities – let’s unleash that potential.
Jobs for everyone
The destruction of jobs and resulting mass unemployment is left right and center as one of the horror scenarios about the implications of AI on society and economy. However, we need to move away from black and white scenarios in this context and have a more differentiated discussion. It is true that according to a McKinsey study from 2017 on average 45% of all work activities can already be automated with current technology. However, that is not synonymous with saying 45% of all jobs are obsolete. Rather, it creates space in already packed work schedules. In a wide variety of jobs, people complain that they are so busy with day-to-day tasks they cannot plan for the future or deal with new strategically important issues. So let’s see this as an opportunity to focus human ingenuity and time on the topics that really matter.
Make technology the solution, not the problem
There is a widespread fear that the mass adoption of technologies depletes the planet’s resources, alienates people from each other, takes away jobs and may even fuel weaponized AI. And yes, as with most innovations, there will also be harmful effects. However, machine learning is powerful tool to create solutions for the manifold and increasingly complex issues we are confronted with in geopolitics, climate, demographics, economics, etc. It is a means of allocating the scarce resources at hand more efficiently. Think of the time a caregiver or doctor has to dedicate to a patient vs dealing with paperwork. Algorithms can perform many of those tedious and free them up for what patients need: empathy, time for good and comprehensive information and consultation etc. As a result, patients get better care and those professionals can focus on what often made them chose the profession in the first place, i.e. to help people. The same goes for the optimizing the use of resources to design products or energy use. AI can create functionally equivalent designs using much less materials and optimize power generation cycles and grid usage saving on cost and scarce resources.
The problems are human
Many people worry that we are optimizing for machines. Let’s not forget that algorithms are designed around humans, to personalize experiences, make them more interesting or relevant, to automate processes and facilitate certain tasks for people. Algorithms don’t have needs and desires, at the end a human has to be convinced by an argument, product or service. So, in a way, it’s a very human-centric technology catering to the needs and desires of humans. Secondly, this also means that to create useful algorithms and machines, we need to understand humans and their behavior better. So, a rise in AI will also fuel the quest to better understand people and increase the demand for skills focused on this, e.g. anthropologists, sociologists, etc.
Often technology is associated with a lack of meaning. And it is true technology is no purpose in itself, but it gives us the opportunity to look at humans for their humanness. Too long have we viewed humans solely as means of production, have optimized the education system and work place like factory floors. This is a very mechanistic view of the human. But as machines will be able to carry out more and more “human(e)” tasks, we will have questions about what defines us as human beings. The mathematician and first recipient of the Turing award, Alan Perlis once said “a year spent in artificial intelligence is enough to make one believe in God.” This is a genuine opportunity for a renaissance of purpose, where people can rediscover what is the essence of human being, connection to ourselves, to other people and to nature around us.
As more repetitive tasks being taken over by algorithms or machines, humans will be left with higher value adding, but also more demanding assignments like complex problem-solving , creativity and creation. Counted are the days of switching off a little while performing routine tasks during a busy work schedule. There is ample evidence to suggest that among others overall happiness, healthy sleep and mindfulness positively impacts performance in the workplace, especially when it comes to more complex responsibilities. Despite an OECD study revealing that productivity is highest when people spend less hours working, corporate culture still celebrates people. While, this may not be a new point, the capacity to be more balanced, more connected and in tune with oneself becomes more pressing as technology advances and the Latin proverb mens sana in corpore sano – (a healthy mind lives in a healthy body) is still pertinent. We will have to seriously up our game on getting good at leisure.
The machines are the slaves
Sceptics believe that AI will enslave the human race and eventually use us as means of production. Some of the business models powered by AI have led to global platform companies like Uber, that have disrupted some encrusted markets to create higher customer satisfaction. At the same time they can pose a genuine threat to the working conditions in certain lines of work and social cohesion overall. As society we need to ensure that we do not create a class of workers without social and economic buy-in. Just as when the loom was invented and there were widespread uprises against bad working conditions, we need to make sure we find the right conditions for people to work and interact with technology. To be fair, this is becoming more and more difficult in an increasingly interconnected, globalized world, but we cannot shy away from it. To the contrary, have the responsibility, but also the opportunity to rethink how we think about work models.
Let’s build a better polis
Many think that AI powered chat bots and social media create echo bubbles and public manipulation to the detriment of democracy and institutions. Adoption of AI will entail a whole suite of ethical decisions about the boundaries of technology that society has to address as a whole. Most of these problems are inherently complex and not black-or-white, right-or-wrong. Already today, we see that different societies are striking a different balance between the protection of the individual e.g. data protection and unconditional technological adoption e.g. social monitoring. Ultimately, it is a question of finding the right benchmarks. In some cases, they are absolute and universal for example respecting human rights. In other cases, they will be relative and the human will be the measure of all things. For example, when we decide under which conditions to authorize self-driving cars. We could say it has to be 100% safe for humans before we authorize it, but also algorithms are not 100% correct. So, the accident statistics produced by humans could be a good benchmark and then the discussion could focus on whether AI can produce better results and how much better they have to be to be released to the market. These societal and democratic discussions will gain in importance as technology touches more and more aspects of our lives.
Embrace uncertainty and imperfection
In today’s fast-paced world the disruptive power of new technologies constantly surrounds us. This entrenches an increase in the perceived instability and uncertainty people have to cope with. A common reaction to this is often trying to cement the status quo – be this on a microlevel in a person’s job or at a macrolevel as societies. However, this will not prevent technological progress in the long-term. Instead, we need to build up a higher tolerance to uncertainty and an ability to adapt to new information, demands. This also means we need to accept that our responses will not always be adequate from the get-go. Instead, we need a true spirit for experimentation and need to A-B-test our way to successful solutions. Embracing these inherent imperfections is the ultimate return to humanity. After all, nobody’s perfect right?!
It’s the Education, Stupid
People worry about the future of their children and wonder how we can prepare them to live fulfilled lives professionally and personally. With changing demands, it is obvious that our current education system is not equipped to prepare people for the future. It was designed to train higher numbers of people and moved away from a highly individual private teacher model for the privileged to a standardized education system for the masses. Obviously, democratizing knowledge and education was and still is the right goal. Yet, in its current format it is geared more towards feeding standardized knowledge instead of sparking people’s creativity. Yet skills like independent thinking, creative problem solving, interaction and collaboration, resourcefulness, leadership, resilience and empathy will be crucial to perform more demanding tasks. At the same time, we have to include in education effective methods for emotional and mental resilience e.g. through mindfulness exercises, sleeping habits and relaxation methods. And even here AI can be part of the solution of allocating the limited resources of teachers’ to those areas in which each individual student has the most potential to thrive.
Not technology determines how humans work, but humans determine how technology works. So we can use AI to the service or disservice of mankind. It carries great potential for positive impact to all of our lives and can give us a real opportunity to connect to ourselves, build better relationships as well as address societal issues. We have the opportunity to shape the future with AI and not only optimize tasks and build cool applications, but make it a real driver to re-humanize all of our lives.
Nicole Büttner-Thiel is an entrepreneur, economist and data enthusiast. Her passion is to make new technologies useful to companies and people. She is the Founder of AlgorithmX, a software company developing and implementing data analytics tools, and DataQuotient, a data analytics and artificial intelligence consulting firm and expert platform helping companies implement new technologies to create real value. Nicole trained as an economist and econometrician at the University of St.Gallen, Stockholm School of Economics and Stanford University.
She is also a lecturer and speaker about Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics. Nicole is also active in German politics, passionate about bringing digital technologies to government and creating the right innovation policies fort he future. She serves on the Board of Alumni of her Alma Mater University of St.Gallen.