For much of the last decade or more, it’s rare that AI has been discussed without making comparisons with human abilities. For many, as AI advances, it produces an existential threat to humanity, whether in terms of our employability or even our very existence.
Research from Stanford argues that such comparisons are unhelpful and that the reality is more likely to see man and machine working together in ways that compliment each other’s strengths. What’s more, if we can shift our mindset in such a way, it could unlock a wave of innovation and productivity improvements that benefit us all.
Expanding the vision
For much of the development of AI, the vision has been to replicate human intelligence. While this is an enticing vision, it’s also a limiting one. The authors argue that a more powerful alternative future is one in which humans are augmented by technology.
In other words, we should refocus away from automation and towards augmentation. After all, despite the advances in what AI can do, there is a relatively narrow field where it can fully automate what humans are capable of. The market for tasks that can be augmented is much wider.
Indeed, while examples of full automation are relatively few and far between, those involving augmentation are plentiful. Witness the huge number of AI assistants that are featured in a huge number of applications today, for instance.
Augmentation perhaps has the most potential in areas such as healthcare, where staff shortages are well documented and the demands of an aging society getting ever greater. AI is already being deployed to provide the kind of around-the-clock monitoring that it’s not feasible for humans to provide.
Taking the burden
AI assistants have also become quite adept at doing many of the tedious jobs that are crucial yet incredibly bull. For instance, filters on our emails and product recommendation engines are pretty effective now at helping us choose the things we want, while process automation tools are also increasingly capable in picking off mundane tasks.
Similarly, tools like Otter are increasingly effective at making accurate annotations, which has implications in fields as diverse as journalism and healthcare, where note-taking and transcribing are crucial yet hugely laborious tasks that suck up time and joy in equal measure.
By taking care of these lower-order tasks, it then frees up humans to do what we do best. In other words, it’s helping us to do our work faster and more efficiently.
“In hospitality, even as we’re in the midst of a real labor crisis, it’s not the right approach to simply think about plugging those gaps with robots or other forms of technology,” Dr Meng-Mei Maggie Chen. Assistant Professor of Marketing at EHL told me. “Instead, we should be using this opportunity to rethink how we do things and how we can use technology to take care of the more routine tasks and free up humans to really add value to the customer.”
As a result, while it can be tempting to consider automation as a surefire way to lower costs, the Stanford researchers believe companies should instead be looking at the bigger picture, as augmentation offers greater economic benefits. What’s more, the researchers believe that these benefits are more likely to be spread widely across society than via the automation route, which would be more likely to lead to redundancies and disruption, as was the case with the introduction of so many technologies in the past.
Such an approach is also likely to require a reorientation to ensure that a “Matthew Effect” doesn’t emerge whereby the already advantaged use technology to get further ahead. This is already evident at an organizational level, where larger firms are much bigger adopters of new technologies than small and medium sized firms.
“Hospitality as a sector is not renowned for being at the forefront of tech, but with 97% of all hotels being independents, there is often a clear divide in terms of what is possible,” Ian Millar, Manager of Institute of Business Creativity at EHL tells me. “These businesses are unlikely to have an IT director and may lack the skills and resources to make use of the latest technology.”
It’s also present at an individual level, however. Inequality is already one of the more pressing issues of our age, and there is reasonable evidence to suggest that technology already has this impact on society. The aim of AI has to be to equalize access to the best services and opportunities, not render them ever further away.
It’s no longer acceptable that all of the benefits of technology trickle up to the owners of capital, or specifically the owners of digital capital, at the expense of the rest of society. Unfortunately, society currently lacks the incentives to ensure that this happens, with tax policies often favoring investment in machines and technology rather than workers.
Indeed, it is this process of AI bringing prosperity to a relative few and disempowerment to the rest of society that is what the Stanford researchers refer to as the “Turing Trap”. While we’re not currently in the midst of this trap, it’s important to actively work to ensure we don’t fall into it while we still have the opportunity. With AI still at a relatively early stage in its journey, now is the time to do so and imagine a future in which humans remain indespensible.