Why We Should Let The Robots Win

The growth in interest in AI has been phenomenal, however with this seems to have come a flurry of debate conjuring images that Stephen Hawking’s darkest fears may soon become a reality – the robots are coming! This rather dystopian trend would lead us to believe that the human race is suffering because of ever-growing machine intelligence. And everyone seems to be in on it – Bill Gates has called for a robot tax while the Bank of England, Deloitte and PwC have all warned an alarming number of jobs are at risk.

However, while ‘robots’ are certainly changing things are they REALLY going to eliminate the need for human input? Having worked in the field for almost 20 years I’d happily argue that we should actually be on their side.

One of the more balanced reports I have seen, produced by the Royal Society, concludes that people are scared of Artificial Intelligence for all of the wrong reasons. However in order to promote a more positive stance on an industry which is set to drive real growth to both the UK and global economy – over the past 3 years a new AI company has been created almost every week – the question we should be asking is, should we really be scared at all?

The biggest issue for me in the topical and ongoing debate is that this somewhat warped view of this industry means that there is a huge gap in understanding. There is a massive need for education and clarity, and this should start through defining ‘robotics’ and ‘Artificial Intelligence’ – two terms that are frequently muddied and misunderstood.

What these stories fail to point out is that actually AI is and has been all around us for many years, driving innovation across industry and as part of our day to day lives. In the world of design and engineering, AI programming techniques have been used as part of the CAD design process now for many years. In healthcare the concept of integrating computer technology into design isn’t something new. We’ve seen AI used to monitor self-adjusting knees through integrating computer technology into prosthetic designs and how this technology has developed. Microprocessors have been created using machine learning by organisations like Intel and ARM.

There are preconceptions about how robotics should look and act. And this can blind us to what is already going on around us. In its true form, robotics or robots are physical, mechanical devices, used for control, sensory feedback and information processing. Robotics are mechanical, pre-programmed and most importantly, describe something that is deterministic – for example the machinery in an automotive manufacturing factory that is carrying out the same task repeatedly.

Because of what we have seen on TV and films for decades, we often associate robotics with a more humanised form – something with arms or legs that can talk our language. In reality, we are already using a number of ‘robots’ at home every day from the washing machine with its temperature sensors to our home alarm system.

On the other hand, Artificial Intelligence describes a ‘software’ technology that as a concept is far more complicated and sophisticated. Designed digitally, Artificial Intelligence creates in itself a complex problem solving ability, based on its own learned behaviours – something that robots/ robotics can’t do. The two technologies of course are not distinctly separated – there are occasions where there is an overlap and robotics are made up of an element of AI, but this happens much less often than we would be led to believe.

A lot of pre-conceived ideas around both robotics and AI are short sighted – forgetting about the progression that has been made to get to where we are today. These technologies are not a finite form by any means. Using the automotive industry as an example we can see how these technologies have progressed so far. We have steadily evolved from the emergence of power steering in the 80s through to satellite navigation and in-car smart technologies.

It’s maybe easier to think not of Artificial Intelligence but Augmented Intelligence – where the technology is augmenting human experience or human capability. Rather than taking our jobs and roles completely, machines will take over the more mundane tasks leaving humans to be more creative and productive in the areas that they are really good at. In specific sectors, including the music and entertainment industry, again we will see a force for good where AI can positively impact on issues including piracy, evolving the production process – bringing creativity back to music production – and lowering the barriers to entry in this space. For consumers, an augmented intelligence will transform the experience from a static process of one-directional consumption, to one of dynamic co-creation, allowing fans to become more engaged with artists, and vice versa.

Finally, to finish on a philosophical but realistic note, historically we’ve had humans as patrons of this planet and we’ve seen the impact that this has had on the environment, other species, rivers, urbanisation, war and religion – I think it’s fair to say we haven’t done a great job. Perhaps now IS the time to let the machines take over……

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