Why Disruption and Innovation are coming and you aren’t smart enough to take advantage

The fundamental point of this ramble is this – most of you worrying about Disruption and Innovation have literally no idea what is round the corner and all your efforts are a probably an epic waste of time. Yes, this is a “the machines are coming!” post.

To give a little human context, on Friday Night after a couple of decent glasses of Red I got into a discussion with the BI Monkey’s other half about how her employer was chasing innovative customer experiences, vision and so forth. This set me off on a bit of a tangent on the scale of Corporate Vision as earlier in the day I have been reading about Elon Musk’s vision to get humanity to Mars, which eats most corporate visions for breakfast in terms of sheer breadth of ambition and scope. On the way got side tracked into AI (due to reading this earlier in the day). These coalesced over the weekend into this slightly rambling post.

Corporate vision beyond
Corporate vision beyond “great customer experience”

One point which I will totally fail to address but want to think more about is – if we create a true intelligence – why is is Artificial?

Disruption and Innovation you are (possibly) smart enough for

There are three rough classes of AI. The first of which is Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI). Which means smart, but within very narrow boundaries. For example, my car has adaptive cruise control and though some tech voodoo is smart enough to be able to match its speed with the vehicle in front, apply emergency braking if needed and warn me if I stray out of lane. This is all very spooky on the first use but very quickly becomes something to switch on by default as I realise the car pays more attention to traffic than I do. Note I am not one of the majority of drivers who think they are better than average – I am definitely not that great and would rather a robot was in charge. Driving is hard and stressful, especially on busy roads (long country drives are a different story).

Anyway, the point is that the car is a way better driver than me, it’s smart, attentive, doesn’t get annoyed by the jerk in front cutting in and has absolutely no understanding of why it is going where it is going, what a sandwich is or how to play chess. It has a Narrow focus and is unlikely to move out from those guide rails.

Don't cut in front of these robot cars, you jerk
Don’t cut in front of these robot cars, you jerk

This form of AI can be disruptive as we understand it. Truly autonomous vehicles are going to disrupt our economy like you wouldn’t believe and we are less than 10 years away from it now (Volvo have just stepped up and said they will accept liability if their self driving cars crash). Innovations like Uber’s approach will leverage these disruptions.

What I will gloss over here is that this class of Disruption is going to hammer the economy by removing about 40% of jobs, and if you aren’t in a role leading the disruption in those 40% of jobs, you’d better retrain. A lot of the Disruption/Innovation axis cheerleaders like to skip over the fact that the massive improvements for customers will unfortunately remove the ability for a lot of those customers to actually earn anything, but hey ho. We can always hope for a Universal Basic Income, as per Steven Hawkings observation that one of the big future problems we face is not the lack of jobs but how the balance of power in society alters once most of us are no longer capable of adding any value to the economy.

Disruption you are probably too dumb for

ANI however is a limited threat as it still needs a lot of help from us humans to be designed, given a purpose and boundaries, yadda yadda. At some point – currently estimated at around 2040 (give or take 10 years) – we will create our first Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). Which is AI that can learn, set its own boundaries, solve general problems  and no longer need handholding by us. At this point you can pretty much forget Innovation. The machines will largely be better at solving problems than us. Our best bet is that we can at least ask the right questions and still get some answers that a standalone intelligence cannot pose or use by itself.

The Disruption that is caused by the ability for us as a species to create an on-demand intellect to address problems will be that – as an economic resource – our value will plummet. A machine intelligence will be able to answer thousands of questions at once, have perfect recall and access to more data than we can hope to ingest in our lifetime and – best of all from an economic perspective – will have marginal input costs (it won’t need pay for a start) and no issues with motivation.

We will make the robots do all the Excel and they will never read Buzzfeed
We will make the robots do all the Excel and they will never read Buzzfeed

There will be a brief burst of innovations as people pose interesting problems to these new intelligences and apply the solutions, but try having competitive advantage when you can ask your AI how their AI solved a problem and you get an answer in seconds. R&D lag is gone, specialist expertise and accumulated experience is rendered worthless.

Then of course these AGI’s will take the next step.

The Disruption which will make your Innovation irrelevant

The next step in the scale is Artificial Superior Intelligence (ASI). This is where an AGI is smart enough to make  its self smarter and exceeds our intelligence altogether at a point known as The Singularity. At this point all bets are off. The ASI will be able to solve any problem we throw at it, create and solve new ones we weren’t even aware of and either drive us to extinction or gently herd us into the future in ways that will boggle our tiny little minds. The economy as we understand it will cease to be relevant so at least you won’t have to worry about your job.

So, we have to hope that we get Multivac or The Culture. The alternative is less about the ASI being hostile, and more about it being as indifferent to us as we are to a microbe. We may not consciously set out to destroy a microbe, but we may do so through our actions because we do not consider the microbe as we act.

Gratuitous Cthulu Picture because you may want to get eaten first
Gratuitous Cthulu Picture because you may want to get eaten first

Are we all going to die, BI Monkey? What should we do?

The safest course of action is to transfer all your money to me immediately and …  I haven’t thought about step 2. Perhaps take more of an interest in this subject so we can be better prepared for the coming changes. We still have 20 years to Disrupt and Innovate like it matters in the meantime.

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What will we do when White Collar Automation takes our jobs?

While I’m in a bit of a groove about the future of the workplace, I may as well talk about how there may not be a future for the workplace.

Automation destroyed the working class

The Industrial Revolution was so long ago now that it qualifies as history. The replacement of skilled labour with machines wiped out a whole class of skilled workers, but simultaneously expanded opportunities for unskilled workers to such an extent that overall standards of living rose and most people saw this as a Good Thing(tm). However since the seventies, robotics and computing started to strip humans from the factory to the point that now the modern factory floor workforce is only a tiny proportion of what it used to be. Similar effects can be found in farming, where vast farms are now run by just a handful of people.

Any repetitive physical task can be completed by a robot – and nobody has questioned this too hard. Factory conditions are harsh and most people don’t want to perform the exact same task hundreds of times a day due to the physical and psychic toll that can take.

However a clear upshot of this is that unskilled labour has little place in a modern economy. You could perhaps be a driver (a career with probably less that 20 years left before that becomes automated) – work in retail (currently being seriously eroded by ecommerce) – construction (safe for now) – but the options are limited and shrinking. If a job doesn’t require physical presence (e.g. Bricklayer) or face-to-face interaction (most sales) then it is potentially at risk.

A debate I’ve been having recently with a friend thinks that office workers are more immune…  but I think she’s being rather optimistic.

Analytics will destroy the middle class

Famed economist John Maynard Keynes once predicted widespread unemployment “due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour” – i.e. we will make the economy so efficient that we don’t need all available working people to run it any more.

Now this future has been long foreseen by Science Fiction writers and falls across a wide spectrum of possibilities. There’s the wildly optimistic future presented by the late Iain M. Banks of “The Culture” where effectively machines take care of humanity in a benign manner and give them a life of luxury and freedom. Then there is the darker end, such as UK comic 2000AD‘s character Judge Dredd‘s dystopian Mega Cities where wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few and 99% of the population is unemployed and lives off far from generous state handouts and life for most people is pretty dismal.

According to a study by Oxford University nearly 47% of US jobs are at high risk of being replaced by automation within the next 20 years. So this may be a reality we need to work out sooner rather than later. If your job involves decision making and it has routine repeatable elements to it then it is at risk of a pattern detecting engine being applied to it and that decision making process delegated to a machine. This could be as simple as approving a loan – something that is largely automated anyway – or as complex as diagnosing cancer.

Now many people may resist this and argue that a machine could never replicate the subtlety of human thinking. To some extent that is true, but the quality of human decision making is poor and it is arguable that handing over things such as medical diagnoses to systems that can absorb a volume of data far beyond our poor human brains capacity – and assess it rationally and fairly – may well improve the decisions that do get made.

So, perhaps it is time hail our new AI overlords, and let us pray they are kind to their creators…

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