In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 award-winning short story ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’, a Tibetan monastery engages the services of an Automatic Sequence Computer and two engineers to complete fifteen thousand years of work in three months – using the machine to calculate all the permutations of their alphabet in order to discover every possible name of god – and in doing so, triggers the end of the world, as the stars extinguish one by one.
As metaphors go, even Clarke himself couldn’t have predicted the story’s extraordinary parallels with society’s preoccupation with automation, Artificial Intelligence and our own version of the end of the world: computers replacing people, mass unemployment and accepted human skills rendered obsolete. But unlike his tale, the lights don’t go out on humanity. What we are actually seeing is a natural shift towards the next stage of human ingenuity. After all, when Clarke wrote ‘Nine Billion Names…’ he used a typewriter. And a typesetter painstakingly laid out the thousands of letters required to print the story. In our digital world, can you imagine that? Perhaps some of the confusion and concern lies in the language around these exciting advances in tech, so it’s worth looking at what we really mean when we talk about AI and automation.
At this stage you could say that AI is like a teenager – absolutely dreadful at doing as it’s told
Automation, automation, automation, automation, automation…
The nodding dog of technology, an automated process is simply taking a repetitive, monotonous task and letting it run unaided. And just like a nodding dog, once you set it off, it simply does the same thing over and over again. Automated software or machines follow pre-programmed rules and will only act when triggered by a pre-defined action. So, this could be something like a robotic arm, which picks up thousands of heavy objects on a production line, a piece of software that runs the same tax calculation a million times a day, or even climate control in offices and warehouses. These are things we’re all largely familiar with and are jobs that few of us really want to do. Automated processes are also all superb sources of data collection. Which brings us neatly onto… Artificial Intelligence.
All too human
Artificial Intelligence is where a machine is designed to simulate human thinking. And right now, in truth, it’s very much in its infancy. AI is fundamentally designed to seek out patterns in data and learn from them, then apply that learning. There are definite crossovers with automation, in that it is often applied to make our lives easier and that automated processes can be an important source of data from which the AI can ‘learn’. At this stage you could say that AI is much like a teenager – learning everything for the first time and absolutely dreadful at doing as it’s told (and let’s not even venture down the road of letting an AI go free to seek its own data. That hasn’t ended well so far). The reality of AI today is that it’s brilliant for taking the thought out of our daily tasks. Ever had your Gmail autocomplete a sentence that is spot on? That’s AI. How about that nasty habit that Amazon has of throwing the perfect suggested purchases our way? AI too. So, if it’s that helpful in our daily lives outside of work, then imagine what it could be doing for our commercial productivity?
Machines need the human touch
The manufacturing sector in particular has come under some scrutiny for its adoption of automation and Artificial Intelligence, with cost and complexity among the chief concerns of detractors, as well as the difficulty of recruiting new talent with an AI skillset into the industry. After all, you don’t immediately associate the world of data science and software engineering with traditional manufacturing, which is a real problem given that a recent report by Engineering UK found that demand for these roles is set to soar between now and 2024. Existing workers in the sector will, by necessity, need to retrain and upskill to meet the demand for an estimated 186,000 new engineers every year, with new skills in the technologies that will be driving the industry.
This trend is supported by the World Economic Forum, whose 2018 ‘Future of Jobs’ report found that new technology adoption can “drive for business growth, new job creation and augmentation of existing jobs, provided it can fully leverage the talents of a motivated and agile workforce who are equipped with futureproof skills”, in the words of WEF founder and Executive Chairman, Klaus Schwab. The report states that “133 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms.” When you compare the estimate of 75 million jobs displaced by automation and AI, the future isn’t looking quite so dystopian as we might imagine.
We are all guilty of having off days – because that’s part of the human experience and what makes us such an excellent, diverse species. We also can’t be good at everything, no matter how hard we try. Like generation after generation before us, we will always look for an easier, faster, more consistent and cheaper way to get the job done. And as we discover these new ways of working, some roles will naturally be rendered obsolete – but this has never been a disaster and nor is it likely to be today. Jobs change and eras end, as they always have. This 4th Industrial Revolution is already becoming old news (the media are already talking about IR5!) and there are plenty more technological shifts to come in our lifetimes. And while it is absolutely necessary to exercise caution during times of change, it’s also a golden opportunity to adapt, learn, grow and keep our very human eyes on the bright skies of the future.