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Cognitive computing

The robots are coming? Think again.

Ti Maja  Manager, Corporate Compliance

Ti Maja  Manager, Corporate Compliance

2015 could be classed as the year the artificial intelligence (A.I.) alarm started ringing. Stephen Hawking prophesied A.I could “spell the end of the human race.” Elon Musk hazarded that “with artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon.” Sir Clive Sinclair declared that artificial intelligence will doom mankind.

So are we staring Skynet in the face? Are we doomed to be batteries in the Matrix? Are the incoming Amazon Prime Drone deliveries really a signifier of the human vs. machine battle to come? The future according to Stanford Legal Informatics CodeX fellow, entrepreneur, technical innovator, bestselling author and futurist Jerry Kaplan is a little bit less farfetched and potentially a lot more golden.

In this entertaining and informative Data Science Insights talk he presented his case debunking the common perceptions about A.I. which he believes to be misguided and counterproductive. A.I. is a simply a natural expansion of the longstanding efforts to automate tasks that stretch back to the Industrial Revolution.

View the full talk (40:19)

Can machines think?

So can machines really think? The answer, which may disappoint, is no. Or as Jerry argues, “not as people think.” From playing chess to driving a car to winning Jeopardy – all these tasks that we thought required human participation and intelligence can be automated. The key is that all of these the A.I behind them can only do one task, very well he argues, but still only one task. It begs the question…

What is “intelligence”?

In 1940, a calculator used to be a profession. It required significant intelligence and attention to detail. Does this mean that the calculator on your desk is intelligent? Of course not. The same reasoning applies to other tasks that have been automated, including satellite navigation driving directions and robot armies picking and packing orders in warehouses. Jerry used the concept of a laundry folding machine to illustrate the fallacy of fictional robots. It can learn how to iron and fold your shirts, “but it’s not going to wake up one day and declare that wants to play in the great concert halls of Austria.” Machines don’t have aspirations or feelings – no matter what Stephen King may write.

A.I. and jobs

Now we get to the heart of the matter. It is true that A.I. will have an impact on the job markets, but probably not in the way that is expected. The new technology will hollow out and change the jobs that are performed. Mundane, straight forward, repetitive jobs that require simple logic and hand eye coordination can be delegated. Automation, whether it’s driven by A.I. or not, changes the skills that are necessary to perform that work, leading to “Structural Unemployment” – a mismatch of the skills to the needs of the market place.

Not everything is rosy though. Historically, as automation has eliminated the need for workers, the increase in wealth has eventually led to new jobs and skills to fill the void. The key phrase though iseventually. The normal cycle of job creation and job destruction is being accelerated – so what can we do to address it and what are the jobs of the future? Is the legal profession at danger? Jerry would not advise anyone today to start training to become a lawyer. Not because he can imagine a robotic version of Perry Mason, but the day to day “simple” activities, the contracts, the estate planning, preparation for trials have already been impacted by automation.

Jerry argued it would be jobs that require the personal touch, that require human interaction. A society of gamers, personal shoppers, social promotion, artisans perhaps?

A.I. and inequality

The real challenge is to implement policies that encourage wealth to be broadly distributed. No need for Robin Hood. We need to provide the proper incentives for entrepreneur and business to benefit society. We need to focus our education on critical thinking – it can no longer be a static line that finishes the day we graduate. We need to evolve our thinking of education and embrace it as an ongoing progression of training throughout our lives.

Live long and prosper?

Our technology and our economy should serve us – not the other way around. Jerry is issuing a call to arms – to use the new collection of A.I tools to transform us into a world that is more Star Trek than Terminator.

The challenge we face, is not just to ride the tide of change, but to anticipate it. It’s time to start the conversation.


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About the series

Data Science Insights is a series from Imperial College’s Data Science Institute, in partnership with Thomson Reuters. Through the series, guest presenters will share approaches and insights from data science in their organizations and how it makes an impact across the different markets that Thomson Reuters operates in. The events will vary depending on topic, ranging from guest presentations, to interviews and panel discussions.

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