by Aiken PR
It’s funny how people can get something into their head that is incorrect and no matter what conventional wisdom says or common–sense dictates, they simply cannot shift from it. A friend of mine had twins, a boy and a girl, and when she would meet people out walking when the children were young some would ask if they were identical, knowing they were separate sex twins. For whatever reason, some people associate twins with being identical only no matter what the evidence suggests.
I find Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a little like that. It is a much talked about subject matter but one that many people have a narrow, ill–conceived view of with little knowledge of what it can deliver for society. A recent survey of senior executives’ places AI as one of the most important technologies of the 21st century but the potential of its long–term impact is only starting to sink in. Through leaps in machine learning, speech recognition, mapping and visual recognition AI is already making a major impact on our lives. Facebook posts you are tagged in, Netflix recommendations, Spotify playlists and Google and Skype translators that enable us to talk to anyone in the world are all derived from AI technology. But this is just the beginning.
The Chief Executives Club at Queen Universities hosted its inaugural speech last week by former US envoy to Northern Ireland and CEO of Teneo Holdings Declan Kelly who talked about the need for society and for businesses across Northern Ireland to embrace its potential. Universities are sitting up and taking notice, Queen’s among them, by tailoring their courses to empower students to deliver on AI’s technology potential. Indeed, Harper Adams University made headlines around the world, in the technology and farming media for harvest related AI. An internationally renowned technical university, it is teaching robots to recognise weeds so they can be hit with tiny spots of herbicide instead of indiscriminate sprays potentially saving money, energy and wildlife. The opportunities to support healthcare are also growing all the time, with AI now able to identify changes in the brains of people likely to get Alzheimer’s disease almost a decade before doctors can diagnose the disease from symptoms alone.
Industries and sectors are researching and making changes, and as it has always done, society will see the opportunity within the new ‘industrial revolution’ and adapt to it. Nearly 500 years ago, Queen Elizabeth denied an English inventor named William Lee a patent for an automated knitting contraption. “I have too much regard for the poor women and unprotected young maidens who obtain their daily bread by knitting” she told Lee. Yet Lee’s invention was eventually created and it did not prompt the end for linen workers. Rather, by the end of the 19th century, there were four times as many factory weavers as there had been in 1830.
While there may be challenges to some areas of employment with the development of AI technology, many opportunities beckon in others. The robot tractors being developed by Harper Adams and others are almost certainly going to create more jobs in the long run. While there will be less employment in low productive areas of the sector, automating agriculture will help make UK and Irish farming more competitive creating more jobs in the processing and marketing industries, as well as in the rest of the economy where the profits of farming are spent. As with industrial or technological change within any era, the industrial revolution being the most radical, focus shifts and people learn new skills and adapt to industry needs.
Another very recent example of this shift is Amazon, which has over the last three years increased the number of robots working in its warehouses from 1,400 to 45,000. Yet, over the same period, the rate at which it has hired workers hasn’t changed at all. The reasoning for this is simple – robots help Amazon keep prices low, with people buying more goods, with the company needing more people to fill its warehouses even though it needs fewer human hours of labour per package. Similarly, if a journalist used AI to transcribe an interview it doesn’t deem them obsolete, it allows them to work on and perfect other aspects of their job.
Ofcourse, there will be challenges. We have seen the number of closures in bank branches over the last few years here in Northern Ireland and, Vikram Pandit, who ran Citigroup during the financial crisis said last week that developments in technology could see 30 per cent of financial jobs disappearing in the next five years. However, banks will need more support from both internal employees and external agencies regarding the growing need for cyber security. Next year, the UK will be subject to an EU–wide directive known as GDPR that will fine companies 4% turnover if their data is hacked, stepping up the pressure to tighten cyber security
The UK employment rate is currently at its highest level now since comparable records began in 1971 and this is despite all the advances in digital technologies. A McKinsey report found that “total automation” of jobs accounts for just 5% of the current job market and that in the decades to come AI will encourage a beneficial partnership between human beings and machines. Their report concluded optimistically that machines will not destroy jobs but rather, “more occupations will change than will be automated away.” From data analytics to R&D, AI needs a highly skilled workforce and will create other skilled jobs elsewhere in the supply chain.
This reinforces the need to maintain a focus on the development of skills within the education system enabling companies to draw on skilled and creative talent that will drive the change. We should encourage and invest in the growth of exciting new technologies and data analytics that AI can provide which offers a pathway to economic prosperity. The businesses that support and embrace this, are the ones we will be talking about in decades to come.