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Will artificial intelligence bring a utopia of plenty? Or a dystopic hellscape? Will we, jobless and destitute, scavenge for scraps outside the walls of a few techno-trillionaires? Or will we work alongside machines, achieving new levels of productivity and fulfillment? The tech world has no lack of prognosticators: Bill Gates and Elon Musk, for example, see in AI an existential threat to the human species, while Ray Kurzweil thinks it can’t come soon enough.
Silicon Slopes and big data
In fact, artificial intelligence is already here, and has been for some time. While many mistakenly equate AI with consciousness—Hollywood has done the robot-gains-consciousness plot to death—the two are distinct phenomena. As Noah Yuval Harari discusses in Homo Deus, AI need not be conscious to possess superhuman intelligence. Nor is it likely to be. Already, in domain-specific tasks, non-conscious computers are far beyond humans in intelligence. Watson beat humans at Jeopardy back in 2011; more recently, Google’s AlphaGo AI beat Korean Grandmaster Lee Sodol for the fifth consecutive time at the incredibly complex game of Go. And, to those who point out the narrow scope within which such AIs can function, just remember how rapidly the scope has expanded in only a few years.
AI depends on intelligent algorithms, and such algorithms depend on the analysis of vast amounts of data. Which is why Utah is on the map with regard to AI advancement. The so-called Silicon Slopes has become, per Mark Gorenberg, “a world leader in data analytics.” Gorenberg should know. He serves as managing director of Zetta Venture Partners, an AI-focused venture capital firm based in San Francisco, and has invested in a number of Utah companies. “The notion of analytics has become a cornerstone of Utah technology,” he says.
Utah boasts high-profile data firms like Domo, Omniture (now part of Adobe) and Qualtrics, to be sure. But it also has an ecosystem of lesser-known players. Teem, for example, “started by putting software on an iPad so that corporate teams could book conference rooms,” Gorenberg explains. “In the process, they gathered a ton of data that allows them to predict the digital workplace of the future.” One Click Retail (my employer—full disclosure) uses machine learning and Amazon.com data points to help sellers optimize ecommerce operations. InsideSales employs data analytics to accelerate sales productivity by identifying the highest ROI accounts, contacts and action steps. Verscend, a healthcare analytics company, “utilizes data in meaningful ways to bring our customers smarter and more effective analytics,” per the company website.
But will robots dispossess us of gainful employment?
Utah’s tech sector is clearly positioned to benefit from the emergence of data-driven intelligent algorithms. Well and good—but we’re still left with the trillion-dollar question: Will smart machines eventually take our jobs? Are we fated to be like the typewriter—the human being as obsolete technology—while artificial intelligence becomes, metaphorically, the word processor and laser printer? In many areas, yes. According to Gorenberg, however, there will be just as many areas in which the new AI frontier creates jobs. “Sure, we’ll lose jobs,” he says. “But what people aren’t seeing is the jobs we’ll be gaining.”
“Take autonomous vehicles,” Gorenberg continues by way of example. “Sure, a lot of people who drive for a living”—taxi drivers, truckers, etc.—“will no longer be needed. At the same time, think of the downtown areas of cities.” Traffic-congested urban centers no longer need be congested; sophisticated algorithms will route traffic for maximum flow. Intelligent cars, free from human error—and human distraction—will travel faster and in tighter formations, with far fewer accidents.
Then there’s the issue of parking. “The average downtown area uses 30 percent of its space for parking,” Gorenberg notes. “Those cars just sit there all day while their owners work.” If the hive mind of the autonomous vehicle system knows exactly what transit is needed, and when, it can provide it at a moment’s notice. Fewer cars will be needed, and they can be kept outside the city center and brought in to meet demand.
Thirty percent of a city’s downtown is a lot of area. Gorenberg describes the construction frenzy that will occur as “the whole nature of downtowns change” from all that prime acreage suddenly available. He imagines a city center could include “gardens, urban manufacturing and much more.”
“Sure, we’ll lose jobs. But what people aren’t seeing is the jobs we’ll be gaining.” – Mark Gorenberg, managing director, Zetta Venture Partners
And, in his vision of urban reconfiguration, Gorenberg sees beyond the myriad blue-collar jobs that such massive projects will create. “Not only will you need construction workers and the like; you’ll need architects, city designers and planners, software development and IOT implementation,” he says. “There will be a need for energy experts and water experts and all of the various disciplines it takes to make a city highly functional.” In short, “the reuse of urban space for the next generation of cities will be a multi-trillion-dollar opportunity and will create millions of jobs at all levels.”
Would you like your automation full or partial?
Economist James Bessen would agree with Gorenberg. In his article “How computer automation affects occupations: Technology, jobs and skills,” he concedes that “full automation” might indeed result in job losses. However, “most automation is partial—only some tasks are automated.” In fact, as he details in his study, out of 270 occupations listed in the 1950 Census, only one—that of elevator operator—has disappeared. Bessen claims that most job losses are not the result of machines replacing humans, but of “humans using machines to replace other humans, as graphic designers with computers replaced typesetters.” Or, as Mark Gorenberg puts it, “this [artificial intelligence revolution] is no different than any other technology wave.”
Are Bessen and Gorenberg overly optimistic, perhaps even naïve, about the potential of artificial intelligence to replace humans? Or are AI alarmists a bunch of Luddites? Such questions can only be answered retrospectively. In the present, however, the incontrovertible fact is that intelligent algorithms are helping humans get better at their jobs. We don’t know whether, as Alibaba CEO Jack Ma predicts, algorithms will one day be CEOs. What we do know, in the words of Gorenberg, is that “a [human] CEO empowered with data is a better CEO.”
So the short-to-medium-term prognosis is that human plus machine equals a better work unit than either on its own. Humans empowered by machine learning, data and sophisticated algorithms can outcompete regular old humans in the knowledge economy.
InsideSales has “a dataset of over 100 billion sales interactions,” says CEO Dave Elkington. The firm’s intelligent algorithms use this ocean of data to guide salespeople. “Often, the lift provided by our software is so extreme as to make our users wonder if there might have been a reporting error.” Data-powered, AI-guided salespeople. How can regular salespeople, doing things the old-fashioned way, compete? Most likely, they won’t be able to.
Intelligent machines will also extend human abilities in important ways. To illustrate: the developed world (to say nothing of the developing world) faces a shortage of doctors, both generalists and specialists. “I believe that AI augmenting healthcare will allow more people to perform healthcare services that today only a few can do,” says Gorenberg, adding that, for example, “an AI could work side by side with nurses and allow them to take expert ultrasounds and other medical images that today have to be done by a select set of experts.” Thousands of high-skill nursing jobs would open up. What’s more, if lower-level professionals can do advanced medical work that is currently the exclusive domain of doctors, doctors will be free to focus on aspects of medicine for which a human with 7–10 years of medical training is uniquely suited.
“Often, the lift provided by our software is so extreme as to make our users wonder if there might have been a reporting error.” – Dave Elkington, CEO, InsideSales.com
The third wave of tech revolution
If steam power was the first technological wave, and software/internet the second, artificial intelligence could well be the third. In Gorenberg’s vision, the “huge number of new data science and analytics positions” that this upheaval will demand will compare with the millions of developer jobs “created by software 25 years ago.”
Over the next 5–10 years and beyond, we’ll see in exactly which ways AI revolutionizes industry and business. One thing, however, is clear: It’s happening, and it’s going to be big.