A technological singularity is a game-changer, but what happens when there are two singularities?
Is there a plural for game-changing?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) will change everything, not just once but twice – two singularities where the world as we know it will no longer follow today’s rules.
The first will be the economic singularity where AI will drive unprecedented changes to the structure of employment — changes that will have lasting effects on every society. How smooth or disruptive this will be is up to us: industry, politics, research and education. We have survived every wave of industrialization and automation so far; there is no reason that this time it should be different, albeit more dramatic than anything seen before.
The second singularity will be the advent of “super artificial intelligence” (or artificial general intelligence) when the human race produces a real intelligence not just equal to but greater than its own. An intelligence that can act on massive volumes of data at a speed that no human can match. Nobody knows the consequences of this turning point - or when it will happen, if ever - but this is probably an issue for the next generation and outside the scope of today’s pressing issues. But you just never know.
So, back to the economic singularity and tearing up the business, social and political rule books. As it is, the world is consuming resources at an unsustainable rate, increasingly impacting the planet. The rule books must be torn up and new sustainable institutions, working practices and environmental technologies put in place. Artificial intelligence can accomplish this and we should welcome it. For every potential negative impact of AI there is a far bigger potential benefit.
What cannot be contested is that AI will heavily impact the employment market within the next generation, possibly within the next decade to fifteen years. Estimates of the impact on the jobs market vary from job loss rates of 30% of the workforce lower down the value chain in the UK to 40% in the USA, with the biggest impact in retail and wholesale, transport and storage, and manufacturing. What is different this time is that AI will also hit positions higher up the value chain, such as doctors, surgeons or lawyers, despite the legal implications of automated decisions in these areas.
Should we be afraid? No, but we should be aware. It is incumbent that all stakeholders in society and the economy do not sleepwalk into a crisis. This economic singularity needs to be recognized, controlled and managed.
The upside of AI adoption is mind-boggling; AI will also boost productivity, job safety, wealth and increase leisure time (and therefore more spending). Dangerous and unsavory jobs can be totally eliminated, every clinic in the world could have a first-class robotic surgeon, traffic accidents reduced dramatically, new service jobs by the millions, and of course, issues such as climate change successfully tackled. As to the latter, there is no other way that issues this big, involving mega sets of data and conceptual models too big for a single human brain, can be tackled without AI.
Today humans remain in total control. AI is really more artificial than intelligent. It still works in a linear fashion on known data. It cannot factor in non-digital or numerical facets such as anger, love or loyalty. In the first Google car crash a major factor was the behavior of the bus involved. We all know as drivers the care to be taken when tackling a bus. But put a number on human intuition and enter it in an algorithm? Not today but it will happen.
Think of AI today as augmented intelligence, the best of human reasoning and intuition augmented by the real-time analysis of any situation, no matter how many factors. If managed correctly this can be the basis of saving the planet and a better life for all.
It is heartening that governments are starting to think about the impact of AI. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is an indication that the highest political level is becoming aware of the many issues surrounding AI. These regulations focus on fully automated, or AI, decisions and their impact on the individual and give the right to citizens to question these decisions.
It is a great indication that the impact of AI has been recognized by the EU political hierarchy (and a possible advantage for European businesses) and hopefully this will be followed by an in-depth analysis of possible impacts to the job market and other sectors within society.
The AI story will not unfold as anyone predicts, of course, but unfold it will, and as it does we cannot be found unprepared. Singularities do not come along that often and we must ensure that we turn this one (or two) into a quantum leap of global sustainability.