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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 16 August 2018

Will the coming AI revolution leave us all free to explore higher-minded pursuits?

AI might make some jobs redundant but we could become a planet of poets and artists, says Justin Thomas

Sophia the robot is designed to be approachable / EPA
Sophia the robot is designed to be approachable / EPA

There is a hint of Audrey Hepburn about her. It’s intentional; it’s all part of making her likeable. Sophia, the brainchild of Hanson Robotics, has become something of a media darling. She, or if you prefer, it, has been wowing audiences around the world. Her seemingly sentient responses, social intelligence – albeit artificial intelligence – and quickish wit have paved the way for Sophia to become the world’s first "celebradroid" (celebrity android). For sure, she is the first robot to be given a national citizenship (Saudi) and she is doing a great job of shining a light on Saudi Arabia’s aspirations to diversify its economy and become a leading player in the global technology sector.

More than anything, though, Sophia is the poster girl for AI. Artificial intelligence is probably going to revolutionise the way we live and work (if we work at all) in the coming decades. Change is scary and Sophia (Greek for wisdom) is the compassionate, empathic, friendly face of this uncertain future.

Depending on whom you listen to, the coming AI revolution will create a leisure-filled utopia, where humanity is liberated from labour, with all needs being met by sentient mechanical servants. Alternatively, it will create a dismal dystopia, where the masses of humanity are surplus to societal requirements, unemployed, unemployable and under the heel of robot overlords.

How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? That was the title of a study published by a team of researchers at Oxford University in 2013. The results suggested about 47 per cent of all US employment is presently at risk of being lost to computer-controlled equipment (robots). From the 702 occupations included in the study, it was those jobs requiring the lowest levels of educational attainment that were at greatest risk.

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Another team, also at Oxford University, surveyed machine learning experts, the architects of the AI revolution, asking them about the likely timing of AI advances and more importantly, how long we have before the robots take over. The team published their results in May this year under a paper presumptuously titled “When Will AI Exceed Human Performance? Evidence from AI Experts”. The experts’ answers suggest that we have 120 years before all human jobs are automated and perhaps just 45 years before AI outperforms humans in all occupational tasks.

Will self-driving cars outperform humans in safety and efficiency terms? Will millions of driving jobs be automated? What infrastructure is needed to support this transition? If machines are significantly safer drivers than humans, is it ethical to allow humans to drive? Will laws related to human driving offences need to be reviewed? The social implications of AI are huge, especially when you consider robosoldier, robocop, roboprofessor and even robomedic. The UAE was wise to appoint a Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence to help navigate and optimise the outcomes of this seemingly inevitable transition.

I’m sure it won’t be long before it’s the norm for humans and androids to work alongside each other, at least during the transition to full automation. Perhaps joint working will always need to be the case and AI’s potential might not be as potent as presently envisaged. Either way, consider working as a subordinate to Sophia 2.0 (a super-smart, emotionally intelligent Audrey Hepburn lookalike). Is she preferable to your present boss? Would you trust her honesty and judgement over that of a fellow human? Research from the human-computer interaction lab at the University of Manitoba suggests that for many of us, the answer would be yes. Their study found that humans were more willing to take orders from computers than they were from other humans.

What are the likely psychological consequences of the AI revolution? We know that job loss and relationship breakdown often precedes depression. Even in the context of financial independence via a universal basic income, meaningful employment – that is, a person’s relationship to society – is associated with psychological well-being. Will we find new ways to serve society, ways to fill the employment void that AI threatens to create? Will we become a planet of poets, artists and philosophers, unencumbered with mundane occupations, free to pursue higher aspirations?

Labour-saving devices like Sophia save us time. What will you do with all the time you save?

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