rethink everything

    Will Artificial Intelligence pave the way for a new creative renaissance?


    By Henrietta Thompson

    A dystopian world where science fiction has turned into fact, or a new renaissance era worth looking forward to?

    While many fear the rise of a robot population that is inherently smarter than us, artificial intelligence could be the most liberating technology humans have ever devised. Perhaps we just need to prepare for it.

    Early in 1943, in a canteen at AT&T's Bell Labs (AT&T) in New York, the maverick codebreaker and inventor of digital computing, Alan Turing, was confidently holding court*, explaining just how smart he expected thinking machines, or electronic brains as he called them, would one day become.

    "I’m not interested in developing a powerful brain," he joked. "All I’m after is just a mediocre brain, something like the president of AT&T."

    Well Turing's heirs have rather bettered that: today's artificial intelligence (AI) systems could scarcely be described as mediocre. In March 2016, an AI system called AlphaGo, developed by Google-owned firm DeepMind, famously beat the world Go champion by four games to one. This victory of machine over human minds matters because Go is a devilishly difficult game of strategy that has billions of possible moves – more than there are atoms in the universe in fact – that people take decades to master it. And even then, given the number of possible moves, they can only really play by intuition and feel.

    An insult to humanity and its intellect, it’s perhaps no surprise that AlphaGo's win has sparked a backlash. Based on a spectacular advance in deep machine learning, it has led to some dubbing AI as a negative development. Economists at august bodies – from the World Economic Forum to the Bank of England – have been seemingly competing to predict which professions will disappear as the AI juggernaut sweeps humans aside.

    Are they right to be cautious, or is it simply a fear of change that’s driving the headlines?

    Over the long haul, technology is a job creator, merely changing people's roles rather than eliminating them from work entirely.

    In 2015, to see if technology breeds more work, the consultancy Deloitte in the UK analysed employment patterns from 1871 onwards. It found that, overall, technological change created more jobs than it destroyed. Losses in "dirty, dangerous and dull" jobs in agriculture and manufacturing were offset by job growth in the technology, creative, caring and services jobs, for instance.

    Given the power and applicability of AI and machine learning to just about every industrial sector, investment markets are expected to be busy with AI dealmaking in the coming years.

    Market researcher Tractica expects the global AI market to grow from $644 million in 2016 to nearly $10 billion by 2021 – and over $36 billion in 2025. That the AI market is indeed buoyant and buzzing is clear from the mergers and acquisition activity: tech majors Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Apple are all shopping for the most innovative AT&T startups – and are finding many of them in Europe.

    Google's DeepMind, for instance, has placed an AI app called Streams in London's Royal Free Hospital where it monitors vital signs of patients at risk of blood poisoning (sepsis) and kidney infections and predicts long before life-threatening problems strike when they need treatment. Just months after it was switched on, this brooding, background intelligence is predicting problems so well that it is saving each nurse two hours per day - time they can now spend face-to-face with patients.

    This chimes well with the findings of a UK government science and technology committee that looked into how we can prepare the education system for the AI revolution. It concluded in part that schools should "focus on things that machines will be less good at" for future employment - such as developing the creative expertise to look after the technology, troubleshoot it and improve it. After all, driverless cars will still need mechanics, and pilotless airliners - scary sounding for sure but they are being researched - will need air traffic controllers who look after swarms of such aircraft safely, for instance.

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    As another example of this, imagine how AI will impact the work of a portfolio or hedge fund manager. They may well find the raw mathematical part of their work can be reliably performed by a variety of algorithms, each operating on their own market analytics to predict the best trades automatically. But the numbers alone do not live in a vacuum and it is up to the manager to ascertain the degree of risk they are suggesting clients take with the financial instruments they've picked. The human factor will always be to the fore.

    Grappling with the AI revolution will certainly involve a sea change for education systems, however. First, for competitiveness sake, it will be vital to ensure people have the computing skills to further develop AI, ensure it learns how to improve itself and keep it operating efficiently and safely. But also, in the expectation that AI will be assuming certain types of role, educators will have to ensure that people grasp the importance of problem solving and creativity, too. We may well reach a time when the role of work is less important than other sources of purpose. "In a post-work society people might spend more time caring for their families and neighbours; pride could come from our relationships rather than from our careers," says labour historian and thinker Ben Hunnicutt at the University of Iowa.

    But even with intelligent machines doing much of the work, it does not necessarily follow that the hours we will have to work will utterly dominate our lives as they do now. And that raises another question: who will pay people enough in a world where, say, we only need perform two hours of creative/caring/problem solving tasks each day, rather than nine hours at the office coal face? "We ought to think about ways to make it easier and better not to be employed," urges Peter Frase, a leading "post-workist" thinker and author.

    One of those ways, suggests Microsoft's effervescent founder Bill Gates, might be simply to tax the robots. While that is an entertaining notion, it is too simplistic - punishing successful firms whose success may not actually be robot related - and will only deter companies from investing in AI, slowing the revolution. Another way, and one that is actually being trialled, is the notion of a universal basic income in which nation states funnel tax dollars back to households in a low-work economy.

    To many on the left this will sound like socialism's due dividend, a lifelong payout to compensate for evil old technology's two centuries of job theft. To the right, it will seem like a major league, undeserved welfare handout. Whatever you call it, hats off to Finland for being brave enough to test it. The diminutive nation is giving 2000 unemployed people €560 per month for two years to see how such a scheme fares - and they will still get it even if they find work. Initial reports suggest it is popular with some people - giving the entrepreneurially-minded  a safety net while they dabble with getting creative businesses like video making and web design off the ground.

    Machines that perform the amazing feat of mimicking human brains are going to need equally amazing social innovation like Finland's if we are to learn to cope with it. It is worth the candle because far from being the amusingly mediocre construct Turing initially envisioned, AI will relieve us of so much drudge work.

    As this renaissance dawns, we would do well to plan for a future in which people do what they are best at, being creative, compulsive communicators.

    The opportunities of AI – the result of human ingenuity, remember ­– are just too exciting and profound to do otherwise.

    * As related in Andrew Hodges illuminating biography: Alan Turing - The Enigma (Random House)

    Henrietta Thompson is contributing editor for Lombard Odier’s Rethink Everything. Editor-at-large at Wallpaper magazine, co-founder of Furthermore Media, and a commentator and curator on future trends, design and business, Henrietta writes columns for the Telegraph’s Luxury supplement and British Airways’ Business Life magazine and regularly contributes to a variety of other publications including the Guardian, Mr Porter, and Viewpoint. Henrietta is the author of five books and has curated exhibitions at the V&A in London, the GREAT Festival in Shanghai and Everything Forever Now, a touring exhibition for the British Council.

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