Shaping a future that works for all

Global Consulting Director, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence Read time: 3 mins
Charles Newhouse says we must balance excitement about AI’s potential with support for those it may leave in its wake.
Shaping a future that works for all imageAs I gazed out at the driving rain during my holiday in August – that’ll teach me for relying on the Great British Summer – I couldn’t help but think that despite huge advances in weather forecasting over recent years, there is surely still scope for improvement.
 
Perhaps Artificial Intelligence (AI) can help in the future? After all, as my colleague David Nicholson has pointed out, this technology has rapidly moved from pipedream to mainstream. Such has been its pace of development that it’s gone from something that many dismissed, to starting to notice, to actually becoming quite alarming. But while turbulence may scar the journey ahead, the destination has the potential to be amazing.
 
Take Google, for example. Deep Mind (Google's London start-up acquisition) recently deployed one of its AI algorithms to temporarily take over the energy management of one of their data centres. 
 
Now, Google is probably one of if not the most sophisticated company on the planet for building and running data centres – but that didn’t stop the algorithm delivering a 15 per cent improvement in energy management and a 40 per cent improvement in cooling. Talk about impressive. And what happened after the experiment? The figures went straight back to the previous baseline numbers driven by expert human management.
 
That even a world-class company like Google can be substantially strengthened by AI is yet further evidence of this technology’s potential benefits. But it’s not all good news. Yes, AI can have a hugely positive impact but there are concerns too, not least its potential impact on people’s jobs and livelihoods. 
 

An impact like no other

Have you read Race Against the Machine by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee? I first read it back in 2011 and it’s what piqued my interest in the social impact of technology. 
 
I was particularly struck by their diagram which plotted median incomes since 1960 for people sorted by their level of academic achievement vs inflation. Essentially, the takeaway was that education matters. I’ve since sought to continually remind my kids to learn new things and evolve their careers if they are to succeed in a future shaped by mature AI and Machine Learning (ML).
 
It’s important to note that AI and ML are hardly the first technologies rendering previous practices obsolete. Throughout history you can track the societal impact of major advances such as the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, electrification and so on. But what is interesting about those changes when compared with this new wave of technological transformation is that the effect took a number of years to really take effect. As a result, the workforce was able to adapt. 
 
Those that were young enough had enough time to learn new skills and those that were older had enough time to retire before the impact really took hold. This time it’s different. The advance of AI and ML will mean that many simply will not have the time to react. There is a real risk that many roles in professions previously immune from technological disruption – such as those in the law, for example, – will soon disappear, threatening (even) greater inequality as a result.
 

Back to the classroom

In a 2016 article, Human Work in the Robotic Future: Policy of the Age of Automation, McAffee makes the convincing argument that taxation and wealth distribution, whilst being an attractive remedy to addressing the societal impact of this new wave of technology, isn’t the answer. 
 
While people undoubtedly need a sufficient income to live well, implementing a policy like a minimum income is a solution that fundamentally misdiagnoses the problem. Instead, the solution lies in retraining and new opportunities for employment. After all, whilst machines may become better than us at designing and building some things, I doubt they will ever be better or be more valued in caring for an ageing population, for example. 
 
As a society we will have to plan for and help people prepare for new roles that will either come about as a result of this technological change or continue to require people to undertake them. That’s because the biggest social problem resulting from this technology-driven epoch will be the alienation of people and communities left behind.
 
Addressing this isolation through lifelong learning programmes and new avenues for employment must surely be the major priority facing policymakers as they attempt to navigate a complex and interdependent landscape pockmarked by technologies anew. 
 
Well, that and helping ensure that AI can continue to help improve weather forecasts.
 

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About the author

Charles Newhouse is Global Consulting Director at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
charles.newhouse@baesystems.com

 


 
 
 

 

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Charles Newhouse Global Consulting Director, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence 7 November 2019