By Marcus Coetzee, 20 August 2023.
There is a lot of hype and anxiety about artificial intelligence (AI) nowadays. Everyone seems to be discussing it. I’ve been playing around with Chat GPT and exploring how management consultants and charities are using AI. I’ve also realised how many AI tools are already entrenched in our lives – tools such as Siri and Alexa and the grammar editor I use.
This article contains my thoughts on AIs. It follows several discussions, internet research and lots of reflection. The topic of AI is controversial and polarising. Some people are anxious and fatalistic; others are optimistic. People’s viewpoints seem entrenched.
The article explains that we will all end up using AI. This technology is not going to solve all our problems but neither will it replace all humans. It will be more useful than a cataclysmic threat, although millions of people will lose their current livelihoods because of it. AIs will amplify both the good and bad in human nature.
1. Artificial intelligence (AI) is software that aims to think like humans
AIs can learn themselves and make decisions within set parameters. Generative AIs such as Chat GPT produce content such as sounds, pictures and writing based on instructions.
AIs are likely to become increasingly intelligent, useful and accessible. While their computational intelligence already exceeds humans, there are many other facets to intelligence, such as emotional and creative intelligence, where humans will still reign.
2. Discussions about AIs are polarised and controversial
Many people fear that AI is going to create a dystopia where machines either run things or are used by a small elite to achieve the same. They are especially concerned with the prospect of a technological singularity. This is the theoretical moment when the intelligence of AIs explodes and grows exponentially, overtaking anything that humans are capable of. These AIs will create other more intelligent AIs and potentially assume control of human society. AI critics argue that we can’t use history to provide insight into the future of AI because humanity has never invented something that can think like us.
There are also pro-AI advocates who believe that AI will help us to create a fairer and more healthy society. Integral to this view is the belief that AIs will help us to produce and distribute a surplus in production, improve scientific progress, and make better decisions.
3. AIs will amplify our desires and both the positive and negative aspects of human behaviour
AI is an amoral technology. AIs are like nuclear devices. They can either generate electricity through atomic power or destroy cities with an atomic bomb. A totalitarian government will use AI to monitor and control its populace – a trend underway in countries like China. In contrast, AI can also help scientists to understand climate change, doctors to treat diseases, and charities to increase their impact.
4. AI is one of many disruptive technologies that humanity has invented over the past 3.5 million years
Our earliest disruptive technologies include fire-starting, food preservation, shelter-building and agriculture. Recently we’ve seen disruptive technologies such as electricity, the computer, the internet and mobile phone – technologies that we use every day. AI will be much the same and likely to have similar disruptive impacts. But over time, these technologies will become normalised and integrated into everyday life.
5. Disruptive technologies tend to make some types of jobs obsolete but give rise to others
The proliferation of AI will enable us to focus on higher-order tasks and things that only humans can do, as we delegate other activities to software and machines. The exact proportions of obsolete jobs versus new jobs are difficult to estimate. It was the same when the computer was invented.
For example, I worked with a research company for over a decade. Modern technology enabled our fieldworkers to use 7″ tablets instead of paper questionnaires. The position of data capturer became obsolete. We trained staff in how to create electronic questionnaires, automate quality checks and spot-check recordings. The management team could then focus on finding insights for clients and less on managing operations.
6. People will need to become better at performing higher-order activities and those that AIs cannot perform
These higher-order activities are those that require higher levels of experience and skill, and abilities like creativity, intuition, synthesis, wisdom and empathy. AI is unlikely to replace this type of knowledge work and these are the skills that will carry a premium in the future. A similar set of higher-order activities will exist for the various trades, though skilled craftsmen will increasingly rely on sophisticated and intelligent tools to help them perform their work. Your career will be more secure if you master these skills.
There is an obvious risk that people will have to compete with AI for certain jobs – something which AIs are likely to win if the issue is being contested. This presents an ethical quandary about the innate value of human contribution versus the efficiency of software. It emphasises why we must treat AIs as tools and never as an equivalent to humans.
7. There will ultimately be hundreds of millions of potential ‘casualties’ of AI
The biggest casualties and tragedy of AIs will be on those developing economies that rely on unskilled or low-skilled manual labour and basic administrative work. People with these basic skills are most at risk of being replaced by AIs and machines. In contrast, those countries with sophisticated educational systems are better positioned to acquire the widespread ability to develop AIs and use them as tools.
This negative impact on developing countries will be mitigated somewhat by education-focused AIs that offer students a personalised curriculum of learning. Improvements in the ‘natural language processing’ abilities of AIs will also enable people to use this technology without needing advanced technical skills.
It is inevitable that a social security system with policies such as the Basic Income Grant will be required for practical and ethical reasons. This is because AIs will replace millions of jobs and provide many people with few alternatives.
8. Because AI is potentially so powerful and inherently without morality, we will see more discussion about AI ethics
This is a great opportunity for young philosophy students to cultivate a valuable niche. AI is going to present many ethical conundrums. For example, should AIs be allowed to control swarms of military drones to attack a city, or profile people and arrest them in advance to prevent them from committing crimes?
Since these ethical problems are relatively new, we’re going to have to consider principles like Isaac Asimov’s Three Rules of Robotics from 1942 which are as follows:
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
9. AI versus AI conflicts are going to become commonplace, not just on the battlefield but in all aspects of society
Countries and businesses are already engaged in an ‘arms race’ to secure the most powerful AIs. Some absurd examples of AI conflicts will emerge in our everyday lives. For example, businesses will use AI to create SEO-optimised content while others will use AIs to conduct their online research and filter content to find what they’re looking for. Students are already using AI to write their essays and universities are using AIs to evaluate essays and judge their authenticity. Charities will use AIs to write proposals and grant funders will use AIs to screen them – the same is already happening with resumes. There are countless other examples.
10. Each organisation will have its own AI that assimilates all data produced and assists staff to perform various functions
Organisations are likely to rent or buy access to AIs and plugins from software companies that supply these technologies. It might also be a bit like the days when everyone’s desktop computers were terminals connecting to a central mainframe which was the central brain of the organisation. I wonder whether AIs will develop quirky personalities like in science-fiction movies or whether this will simply be a software setting.
11. Anti-AI sentiment is likely to rise alongside the increasing use of AI
There are currently protests in Hollywood against the potential use of AIs to replace actors, authors and screenwriters. This response is valid since software developers are already working on ‘digital twins’ capable of attending that boring video conference on your behalf. AIs will inevitably be able to use old images and documentation to mimic a well-known author or actor. These artists want to protect their intellectual property and future careers.
This type of protest is indicative of future protests in other professions where people feel that AIs threaten their livelihoods.
12. With the abundance of AI-generated content, there will be a premium on human authenticity
Trends tend to have counter-trends. As AI becomes more commonplace, many people are likely to value their interactions with humans and appreciate the products created by them.
In other words, people and organisations will either unashamedly embrace AI to maximise their profitability or they will try to be as authentically human as possible. This will be like the difference between a company that outsources the mass production of its products to the Far East versus a local crafter on Etsy or at the village market. There is bound to be a level of polarisation in the approach.
Someday we might even see ethical certifications that say “AI-free” on certain products.
13. It will be difficult for someone who has never mastered a skill themselves to use an AI to do that same work
This is a risk in some professions that people who rely too much on AIs to do their work will never acquire the skills themselves and become overly dependent on them. This will also limit their ability to use AI as effectively as they might.
For example, someone who relies heavily on an AI to do their writing will struggle to become a skilled writer, despite the support of the AI. They will lack the ability to instruct the AI and evaluate the quality of output – the tone, plot, style and insights of the writing. But there are counter-examples. Someone using an automated coffee machine doesn’t have to be trained as a barista – they can simply judge the quality of the output and fine-tune the settings on the machine accordingly. It will become clear which skills must be mastered in the old-fashioned way of blood, sweat and tears.
14. Organisations in the third sector should embrace AI but use it wisely
The widespread adoption of AIs is likely to amplify many of the socio-economic problems that charities and social enterprises deal with. These include problems such as unemployment, re-skilling and social isolation. But at the same time, AI will be a useful tool for third-sector organisations much like computers and the internet.
Human empathy will always be required! For example, I recently did some work with a Citizens Advice Bureau in the UK. There are many areas in their operations where an AI will become invaluable. However, I also learned that many people who come for advice are severely distressed and desperately need a human on their side. They want someone to empathise and believe in them, and to counsel them. Then only when their emotions have stabilised and they’ve gained some perspective, are they ready to be helped with the problem that brought them to the charity. AIs will not be able to provide this support.
15. AI is already being used by management consultants to help them with their work
I have spoken with other consultants who are using AI for activities like desktop research, document editing, developing training material, data analysis and process automation.
Consultants expect AI to replace certain consulting jobs – positions such as junior analyst and junior designer. They also expect AI to create a range of new consulting jobs that deal with selecting and setting up AIs, helping the AIs to learn the right things, designing unique plugins for their business, integrating AIs with existing systems, and helping people to use AIs effectively. They see opportunities to launch services to assist clients to do the same.
I’m more excited than worried about AI since it will allow me to delegate much of my drudgery to them. This will enable me to spend more time getting to know leaders and helping them to make sense of things, become clearer on their strategies and feel hope. I will hopefully get to spend more time with people and less time with computers.
16. It will take decades before the above scenarios become entrenched
It is tempting to dismiss AI based on its current abilities. However, this would be as foolish as dismissing personal computers in the 1980s because they were cumbersome, slow and only had green or amber text on their monitors.
My recent experiences with AI revealed that they’re either like an idiot savant or a research assistant who has recently left school. They provide useful inputs but lack experience and wisdom. We’re in a phase of AI development where there is more hype than substance but this will no doubt change as this technology becomes more refined.
17. We don’t have any option but to embrace AI since it’s here to stay
The sooner we understand the likely impact of AI on our fields of work, the better. We can’t afford to be like the Luddites of the 19th century who tried to reject machinery outright. Neither can we rush into developing and using AIs without assessing the risks involved.
AI will be less threatening if we see it as a tool like a new computer or software and approach it with curiosity. I recently discovered that my father’s Bonsai club is experimenting with AIs to help visualise possible tree designs. If this group of mostly retirees is open to exploring AI, then so should we be.