AI will power our life
There’s a bigger picture beyond the progress of Artificial Intelligence. Just like when electricity arrived we can’t yet see the full effect. And just like with electricity – life without AI will be inconvenient and unpleasant.
In October 1881 in the small British town of Godalming, the world’s first public electricity supply went on stream, lighting a few dozens incandescent lamps in the town’s streets. The small local firm, Calder and Barrett, had, with their small hydroelectric generator, passed a milestone in the electricity revolution. From these humble beginnings, electricity rapidly became part of the fabric of our lives. The American inventor, Thomas Alva Edison, opened his first public generator in London some three months later, followed by a New York generator some nine months after that.
“Entire industries will benefit from the arrival of the AI, as they did with electricity”
In the US the process of electrifying the nation was mostly complete within 50 years. Today electricity is a utility, not even a commodity. It just works. You can’t really imagine life without it. It is the same everywhere in the world. Everything we do, we buy, is based on the assumption that we’ll have access to electricity. And today, more than 5.5 billion of us do. So when Andrew Ng, one of the most influential forces in today’s artificial intelligence boom, describes AI as the new electricity we stop and take notice. After all, electricity changed industries, jobs, our everyday lives and our social and domestic relationships. Could we perhaps glimpse the second-order effects of artificial intelligence by understanding how electricity shocked the world?
The first experiments with electricity showed the technology could work, lighting bulbs in daylight is a scientist’s a-ha moment. But it wasn’t a study of electricity itself that wrought changes, it was the application of electricity that did. What is interesting is using electricity to power lights to extend the practical day. Or using electricity to reduce the hardship of domestic chores. Or using it to power new classes of production processes – like The Haber-Bosch process for fixing atmospheric nitrogen and creating artificial fertiliser is heavily dependent on electrical energy. Many of today’s AI a-ha moments are a scientist’s Eureka: being able to transcribe speech to written text or describe what is in an image at higher than human quality. But, like with electricity it is the applications, not the technology, that will be the impact of AI in our lives.
Life will seem inconvinient
AI will be deployed rapidly, made available to every part of the industry and home very quickly. In the UK, by 1933 one in three houses had electricity and a further ten years down the road two out of three houses were electrified. The spread of electricity was accompanied by a rapid increase in the intensity of use. The amount of electricity used per consumer grew from about 2 MwHs per household per annum in the 1930s to close to 11 MwHs per household by 2014. This was accompanied by a dramatic drop in the price, almost four-fold in real terms over that same period, and a drop of about 20 times from the turn of the 20th century to the turn of the 21st. AI will be deployed far more rapidly than the appliances that used electricity – because the components it needs to work are already in place. Smartphones in our pockets, wireless internet, digital cameras, cloud-based services. Artificial intelligence will be ubiquitous, wherever there is the internet (and in many places where there isn’t.)
AI services will become indispensable. Life will seem inconvenient, even unpleasant, without it. When I was a child, I would visit my grandparents’ home in Lahore, a house they had lived in since the partition of India in 1947. This old house didn’t have a flush toilet. A minor thing, humanity had lived without flushing loos most of its time on earth, but an inconvenience to make a Westernised grandson ill-humoured. Our expectations for interactions to be AI-powered will rise rapidly. We’ll expect our clinicians to spend time explaining our diagnoses to us, not diagnosing us, because AI systems will have more effectively identified our ailments than any human. We’ll tire of waiting in traffic queues with aching backs because our autonomous vehicles will find the best route for our journey.
New industries will rise
Entire industries will benefit from the arrival of the AI as they did with electricity. In truth the electrical companies did well, but not as well as the fossil fuel companies who provided much of the raw input. Nor as well as the cambrian explosion of firms who could exploit new business models because of the arrival of electricity. Shopping malls make no sense without electricity. Television makes no sense without electricity. Even frequent air travel is not possible without electricity.
AI will drive an analogous Schumpeterian process: industries arising, replacing others. Take the car industry: it has a century-old model of selling us cars through distributors who make money through service and repair. The car industry itself supports the advertising and media industry who are enlisted in manufacturing desire around this mode of transport.
Yet the car industry looks like it will be upended by new modes of on-demand transport rental: autonomous vehicles routed to us by algorithms. Much like electricity, the biggest impacts of AI will be felt outside its home industry. AI will also transform work and with that a transformation of our social relationships. Rural electrification in America, which occurred in the years before the depression, was driven by women. Unlike men, who worked seasonally, women worked from dawn till dusk throughout the year. Electricity, with its washing machine and kitchen stove, alleviated the burdens of their work and, with its radio, connected them to wider society.
How will AI transform our labor structures and with that our wider society? Electricity provided power where it was needed, automating manual tasks, for example washing clothes. It also provided lighting, extending the working day and creating time for in-home leisure. Radio and then television appeared to fill the gap. Artificial intelligence will free up time by taking up some of our cognitive load. It could create free time for us, the same way cheap lighting enabled by electrification extending the day, for both work and leisure. There are any number of taxing but low-value tasks that you could foresee leaving to machines. What we do with all that time, remains to be seen. No wonder that as I talk to business leaders in industries like retail, health diagnostics, professional services and finance, their number one priority is artificial intelligence.
An engaged public debate
Of course, electricity brought with it fears of this ‘mysterious fluid’. American President, Benjamin Harrison had the White House wired for electricity but refused to touch the switches for fears of shocks. It probably didn’t help that it was during Harrison’s term, the first man was executed in the electric chair. William Kemmler died in August 1890, before Edison’s Pearl St generator opened. His execution was botched and resulted in a gruesome 8-minute ordeal. Like electricity, artificial intelligence is bringing forward many fears. Will AI amplify the biases in the world? Will AI lead to persistent and chronic unemployment? Will AI create new megalithic dominant firms controlling large parts of the economy?
These are all real concerns. AI systems have already been demonstrated to systematically bias the bail assessments of black prisoners in the US. And academics, Daron Acemoglu and Pascal Restrepo, have demonstrated that the use of robots in industry depresses both wages and employment levels. And one only need to look at the dominance of Amazon in retail, and Google and Facebook in advertising, to see the risks of market dominance driven by data monopolies. The only way to manage these fears is to have an engaged public debate on the many ways AI will impact the economy, something that is happening in many countries today. For example, in the UK both houses of Parliament have public consultations on the impact of AI underway.
When we think about AI today, we need to go back perhaps not to Edison’s pumping station on 1892. Perhaps AI today is more like electricity in the 1920s America, spreading fast but in limited intensity. But around that spark of intelligence, entrepreneurs and incumbents are figuring out how to apply this soon to be ubiquitous technology in our everyday lives. I believe AI services will generally have one of four major benefits: Relate, not diagnose – AI does diagnosis saving time for human communication; Maintain, not repair – advanced diagnostic systems spot likely failures well ahead of time allowing proactive maintenance; Connect, not collect – machine learning systems end up personalizing specific needs and requirements rather than broad buckets; Take out the boredom – machine learning systems do the boring work, leaving humans to do the interesting, challenging parts.
Four benefits from AI
Relate, not diagnose: Online test-prep company Magoosh uses AI software for customer service, allowing the human providers to respond to more test-takers more quickly: the software has reduced Magoosh’s queue of customer requests by half, and it has made her team’s goal of responding to every customer within 24 hours more manageable. Dr Rajesh Jena, a consultant neuro-oncologist at the University of Cambridge Cancer Centre, has worked with Microsoft researchers to develop a tool which provides accurate 3D visualizations of tumors and organs. This has cut down the time it takes to identify a neuroblastoma from a few hours to four minutes, allowing the specialist more time to counsel the patient.
Maintain, not repair: As our devices get smarter and connect to the net, the so-called internet of things, we’ll be able to proactively maintain equipment rather than repair it when it breaks. One favorite area is to detect faults in offshore wind-turbines weeks before they become critical. This saves money, as prevention is better than cure. It isn’t just wind turbines were prevention is better than cure. The same goes for humans. Cardiogram, an AI-enabled app on Apple Watch, detects irregular heartbeat with 97 percent accuracy, while NVIDIA’s efforts to combine 3D modeling with AI could spare 60 percent of patients from getting angiogram, an invasive and costly scan.
Connect, not collect: One of the leading insurance and investment companies in the U.S., Transamerica, employs machine learning to make product recommendations to its potential customers. McGraw-Hill Education presented its web-based artificial intelligent assessment and learning tool last year, using graph theory to test the process and speed of learning for each student. Machine learning algorithms can follow students’ learning patterns and create personalized learning pathways for individual learners.
Take out the boredom: Automated systems already take the tedium out of flying a plane. Pilots are left to handle the take offs and landings. Autonomous trucks, buses and cars could take out the tedium of driving for long stretches, leaving humans to manage passengers – or even relax. AI systems in legal document discovery spare junior lawyers hundreds of hours of combing for juicy morsels. Those lawyers can be put to more valuable tasks.