How AI makes us more human
The lightning-fast evolution of AI is leading doomsayers to predict global disaster and mass unemployment. But former President of Google China and Sinovation Ventures founder Kai-Fu Lee disagrees – he believes it will help humans rediscover their creativity and compassion.
The development of artificial intelligence (AI) is picking up speed and it’s clear not everybody is as hopeful about these developments as I, a lifelong AI inventor and now investor, am. The briefest of searches of the term makes for a good start in understanding why there is such anxiety about this new technology. Whether through research papers entitled The Rise of the Robots or predictions of mass job displacement, too few people in the world outside innovation labs seem optimistic about the future of a technology which, they fear, will transform our world into some kind of Blade Runner dystopia.
Such fears are not entirely misplaced: the AI programs we’ve created have already proven capable of mimicking and surpassing human brains at many tasks. Within the next 15 years or so, as predominantly Chinese and US companies expand the implementation and development of the technology, AI will be able to do virtually all of our routine tasks.
As a researcher and scientist, I’m proud of these accomplishments. After all, I applied to PhD programmes three decades ago describing AI as the “final step” to understanding ourselves. But, older and wiser, I don’t see AI as a human brain 2.0 – rather, I see it as a chance to rediscover the human heart.
As I alluded to earlier, intelligent machines will increasingly be able to do our jobs, especially routine or repetitive ones. This marks a dramatic shift from previous technological revolutions; the Industrial Revolution which started in the north of England shifted jobs from the home to factories, and the internet revolution spawned whole new industries, displacing – sad as it was – only high-street bookstores and travel agents.
No matter what film directors might think, I can tell you that AI programs cannot cry – or love. Our edge over AI is in creativity and compassion
The pace of developments in AI will make the job displacement as a result of automation in the second half of the 20th century seem small. No matter how sanguine one is about AI – and I consider myself cheerleader-in-chief – none of us should ignore the impact of those jobs. Individuals, businesses and governments need to begin preparing for these changes immediately.
I propose though that this upheaval will reveal the one thing that only human beings are able to create and share with one another: humanity. Or, more specifically, compassion, connection and empathy… what we might simply call love.
Several years ago, an entrepreneur approached me with a problem in his start-up. He had built a bedside companion for elderly people, allowing them to order food, play their favourite music, call their doctor and more. But when he deployed his technologically perfect system in an elderly home, he found that users mainly used one function – the customer service button. The company’s call centre was inundated.
As you might guess, these calls were not about product glitches, but the elderly calling to talk to somebody – about their childhood, their lives and, sadly, why their relatives never visited. This might steer us towards a blueprint for coexistence between people and AI that, far from making humans irrelevant, only increases the meaning in our lives.
Take medicine. In the coming decades, AI will become increasingly accurate in diagnosing treatment for patients. But would you want a cold, robotic voice informing you that you have stage IV lymphoma and a 70% likelihood of dying within five years? The sick will want a compassionate carer who patiently listens to their symptoms and fears, perhaps visits them at home and offers encouragement. Such a carer will not only make patients feel better, but offers the potential for a placebo effect.
Excellent AI tools will emerge, but the human-to human interface is critical
Medical practitioners would be well trained, as now, but with AI storing information about diagnoses and treatments, they would be freed up to practise emotional intelligence too. Such a sea change would not only provide the human touch sometimes lacking in today’s stretched hospitals, but also bring down the cost of healthcare for the individual and the state, too.
Similar synergies could occur in many fields, from teaching to law, and even management consulting. Excellent AI tools will emerge, but the human-to human interface is critical, it ensures we feel listened to. In all these fields, then, employment and quality of service will actually increase, not decrease.
And in areas where employment may decrease, it is vital we start planning for this new human-AI symbiosis. Individuals must ready themselves for new careers and lifelong learning, and businesses should invest in genuine retraining of their workers.
Government must today start to look at supporting those institutional training centres. But more importantly, in future, with increased wealth and tax revenues, it must look to new credits and benefits that support people shifting from displaced work into roles that are currently low paid or voluntary: carers, afterschool workers, environmental volunteers. All areas we agree we need but which are not presently viable careers for many people.
Routine jobs may be replaced by AI, but we can create many compassionate jobs
So, yes, the doom-mongers are right: the “rise of the robots” is here. But we are not heading down some sci-fi, Westworld-style path to dystopia. The tasks that AI will beat us at are not what makes us human. What makes us human is love.
When Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo took on and beat the world’s number one player of the Chinese board game Go, it did not laugh, or smile or go to the bar to celebrate. Its creators simply turned it off. The defeated Ke Jie, in contrast, cried. No matter what film directors might think, I can tell you that AI programs cannot cry – or love. Our edge over AI is in creativity and compassion.
Routine jobs may be replaced by AI, but we can create many compassionate jobs. By freeing us from the routine, and allowing us to find meaning in our lives beyond repetitive work and repetitive paycheques, AI may free us to rediscover what made us human in the first place.
This article first appeared in the May 2020 issue of CA magazine.