Being human in an age of machines

Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, accompanied by the Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra, delivers another pitch-perfect performance of one of the best-known arias in opera, La Donna è mobile, from the opera Rigoletto. Nothing new there but for one thing: The conductor of the orchestra is a robot.

Humanoid robot YuMi was doing something many would see as a uniquely human achievement — not just playing music but interpreting it. This is one more example of the advances being made by artificial intelligence (AI) and the ways it is reaching out to touch all areas of human existence.

AI technology has the potential to direct self-driving cars, drive trains autonomously, diagnose diseases, carry out surgery from afar, run audits and help transform industry in myriad ways. It is going to be part of the world’s responses to a range of challenges, whether they be caring for ageing populations, feeding the hungry, extending medical care or combatting the impact of climate change.

Yet we do not understand how some AI techniques work. And its ever-increasing use raises enormous moral, ethical, practical and political issues that we are only just beginning to address.

“Whether it is good or bad is tricky. The first thing is that technology is amoral — it is not benevolent or malevolent. What we are concerned with is the knock-on effects, the future of jobs, cities, social production. In the final assessment, whether future technology is good or bad will be determined by our ability to respond and adapt to the challenges,” said Bernise Ang, Founder and Executive Director of Zeroth Labs, at the Women’s Forum Global Meeting 2017 in Paris.

Making things better

Technological advances over the past 100 years have brought huge gains in human productivity, living standards and health. They have put millions of children in schools and helped create public welfare systems. There is no reason why AI cannot bring similar benefits to human welfare. Examples of what is possible include helping disabled people to live fuller and more rewarding lives, and creating more time for leisure, for music, for art and for caring for others. “There are so many great things that we could do,” said Kimberly Lein-Mathisen, General Manager of Microsoft Norway.

Photo credit: Women’s Forum/Sipa Press

What emerged from discussions at the Women’s Forum Global Meeting 2017 was that AI should augment the work of humans and not simply compete with human labour. There also needs to be clear accountability for algorithmic programs and designs, to allow tracking and tracing of the way machines operate.

“We need to think of it as humans and machines, not humans versus machines. It is about making humans far better at using technology, about uniting humanity and technology,” said Paul Daugherty, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer of Accenture.

With the rise of AI, companies will need to make ever more complex decisions about how ‘human’ their businesses should be. “We cannot be mesmerized by technology and forget that the core of whatever we do is our people,” warned Alexis Herman, Board Member of Coca Cola Company.

Impact on jobs

Whether AI will create or cut jobs is not yet clear. People have different talents than machines. However, there seems little doubt that used well, AI should boost economic productivity — even if there is little sign yet of this at the macro-economic level. Governments will need to become more actively involved through policy initiatives if the hoped-for productivity gains are to be achieved.

What is clear is that getting the most out of AI will require a human capital revolution. “We need to pay attention much more than in previous revolutions to the quality of human capital. The regions that are successful are those that can maximise human capital,” said Gilles Babinet, Chairman of Capital Dash and Chief Digital Champion of France.

The problem is that many companies look at human capital as a cost rather than as a long-term investment. Employees are used and then jettisoned when their skills no longer match requirements. “We should not just be thinking of employing today and, when a role ends, replace them,” said Anne Richards, CEO of M&G Investments. “The gig economy is a red herring,” she added. “It is actually more about employers having cheap labour.”

Continuous training and learning must be built into the productive process. There also needs to be a change in mind-set. Bringing in more women is a key issue because diversity is a trigger for disruptive innovation. Leadership teams need to be drawn from different disciplines and cultures, so that disruptive technology and policy evolve together, said Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO.

“Is the purpose of business to serve people, or to build better machines? We need to think about some of these challenges. If we think that AI is here to serve, we need to do things differently,” Brown added.

This story is drawn from sessions at the Women’s Forum Global Meeting 2017.