The history of human evolution can be understood through the development of tools. From flint-shaping in the Early Stone Age and agriculture in the New Stone Age, to telegraphs, refrigerators and steam engines in the Industrial Revolution, the process of machines replacing humans has been underway since the beginning of our species. As we outsource labour to mechanisms, we increase net efficiency, allowing ourselves to focus on higher goals.
Where in the past, however, machines replaced activities of the body, increasingly they are replacing activities of the mind. With Amazon using algorithms to manage its workforce and Mastercard relying on intelligent systems to detect fraud, AI is becoming more and more integrated into the many facets of human life. Many have talked about AI replacing manual jobs like factory work, or even removing the need for most human lawyers, but what other changes can we expect in the next 10-20 years? How will day-to-day existence transform as AI becomes more embedded in our lives?
AI as an embryo
AI stands for artificial intelligence. Currently, the ‘A’ of AI is quite pronounced — intelligent systems do outperform humans in computing, data analysis and games with fixed rules like chess and Go, but they are still unsophisticated in ‘open systems’ (where the task requires interfacing with the external world). If we were to predict the growth of AI, it would look like a steep curve, one we haven’t even begun to ascend. Changes will be slow to come, but once they do, they will do so explosively. Experts argue whether that explosion, known as the ‘singularity’, will come in 20, 30 or 100 years.
Automation as a first step
The immediate future, however, is easier to chart. Over the next decade, many of the developments in AI will involve widespread automation. A term many have grown familiar with since the pandemic, automation is the deferring of tasks and processes to computers and machines. Most cars will be partially, if not fully self-driving, reducing the number of vehicle accidents. The supply chain will be integrated and automated, meaning that goods reliably arrive where and when they are needed. Algorithms will increasingly be used in medicine to diagnose potential issues – there may even be online tests users take where AI systems will analyse the individual’s body without necessitating a trip to the doctor. In the immediate future, firms like Uber Eats and Deliveroo are preparing for the mass layoff of employees as drones are quickly becoming a viable method of food transportation.
Connecting people with content, products and services
There are two sides of this — the business side and the consumer side. At the consumer level, AI has played an increasing role in content suggestions over the last decade. Spotify, YouTube and Amazon have led the charge in generating algorithms that provide intelligent suggestions to help people find content or products they like. These systems will become more and more advanced, to the point where we will have dedicated managers on our devices with recommendations for the ocean of content and products that exist on the web.
For businesses, ad targeting and connection-forging will be assisted by AI. Algorithms will not only help business owners find target consumers, but provide intelligent suggestions on why the content/product is not yielding more success, analysing similar cases to gain an understanding of why one works over the other. Of course, AI will be implemented into large corporations first, but SMEs can also expect technologies that assist with marketing, product design and social media management.
Will these changes actually liberate us?
Past these somewhat basic changes, AI will eventually take over most aspects of human work. Whether it’s 3 decades or 10, that world will become our reality, raising yet more questions we struggle to answer. First of all, is an easy, cushioned life something to wish for? Let’s say AI replaces most of the living workforce, profits skyrocket and a generous UBI (universal basic income) is introduced. Many, including Karl Marx some 250 years ago, predicted that we would then be free to pursue art and ‘higher’ ambitions in our abundance of free time. But why, then, do rich kids make bad artists? They have all the time in the world, all the ease of convenience and access to whatever tools they need, but 9 times out of 10 it’s the young, poor, ambitious artist that captures the attention of the world and shakes up the industry. Work is a fundamental component to almost any practice, and a removal of necessity doesn’t seem to motivate people to work harder. Will a humanity liberated from work be liberated at all, or simply sink into a comfortable, stagnant life of ease? What will there be left to do once the machines have outsmarted us in every measurable way?
The topic of AI raises some of the most headache-inducing questions of our time. Beyond the simplest changes that are sure to arrive in coming years, predictions become varied and confused. Larger corporations are investing millions in AI, not necessarily to profit from the developments, but in part just to understand the trajectory and how to adapt to a transforming world. Smaller businesses, on the other hand, are unlikely to spare a second thought to the gaping question of AI, unable as they are to gain any practical insight on how to position themselves in coming years. Ross Pike of web design agency Koreti Ltd comments, ‘The question of AI looms over all industries, but some more than others. Factory workers are bound to fear for their livelihoods. Sectors like web design and digital marketing, however, are generally unsure about how the developments will affect them. For most, it is simply a question of staying updated and waiting.’
We all know that large-scale AI is coming, but we don’t know when, and we don’t know how exactly it will change each of our lives. For the moment, we have largely brushed the question from our minds, and perhaps that is best. Hopefully, the progress will be slow enough to allow us time to respond and adapt to the changing world.