Part 1: AI's Creative Future [A Series]

AI vs. the People: Is the Fear Surrounding This Technology Justified?

Artificial Intelligence is a rapidly growing technology category that’s starting to permeate everything from our homes and smartphones to science and medical research. In the next 15 years, AI could replace approximately 38% of U.S. jobs. It seems labor jobs could be the most severely impacted; however, there’s concern that white collar jobs, and maybe even creative jobs, could be automated. In this series, AI’s Creative Future, we’ll explore the possibility of AI moving into creative spaces like art, literature, and music. First, we’ll define what AI is and examine the fears surrounding its growth. Next, we’ll dive into AI’s emotional capacity and investigate whether robots will ever feel emotions as humans do. And lastly, we’ll determine if AI can and will replace creative jobs eventually.

Fear has been a common response to technological advancement throughout history. Socrates once warned about the dangers of writing, fearing it would lead learners to forget information because they weren’t using their memories. Critics of the printing press feared this new method of communication would lead to information overload. In modern times, email, social media, and even Google have been scrutinized for their “harmful” effects on our intelligence and social skills. However, the fear surrounding AI, or artificial intelligence, seems more feverish than the technological objections of the past, partly because a negative outcome may be our existence.

Films like 2001’s A.I. and television shows like HBO’s Westworld have grappled with the idea that AI will eventually become something we can’t control. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has stoked public fear even further with his claims that inventors could accidentally produce “a fleet of artificial intelligence-enhanced robots capable of destroying mankind”. This seemingly outrageous scenario was at least partially justified when two of Facebook’s AI robots invented their own language to scheme communicate in. But the real reason the public fears AI is not a dark vision of the future in which humans battle robots. Even scarier is a more existential problem — not if robots will take over but what to do with ourselves once they do.

Tesla’s truck which is expected to include semi-autonomous driving features.

Last April, Telegraph’s Science editor Sarah Knapton wrote, “Robots will have taken over most jobs within 30 years, leaving humanity facing its ‘biggest challenge ever’ to find meaning in life when work is no longer necessary.” TIME technology columnist Tim Bajarin echoed Knapton’s concerns. Employment is central to many people’s livelihood and sense of identity. If they lose their jobs to robots, how will they find purpose? How will they survive?

However, many of the reports suggesting AI could replace human jobs are simply predictions. There are still so many unknowns. Given that we’re still learning more and more about AI each day, are all the fears justified, or is this just the cyclical worry that surrounds tech advancements?

What Is Artificial Intelligence?

Artificial intelligence is intelligence demonstrated by machines or robots. AI devices can interpret information from their environments and use it to achieve a goal, like learning a skill or solving a problem.

You may hear terms like machine learning and deep learning used interchangeably with AI. Machine learning involves creating the circumstances so a machine can learn to complete a task. For example Google, in collaboration with MIT scientists, recently introduced an algorithm that can improve the quality of smartphone images before they’re taken. It’s essentially photo retouching in real-time.

Deep learning is a form of machine learning that uses artificial neural networks instead of hand engineering. In deep learning, machines can identify patterns and select data on their own, without human interference or guidance. In November, UCLA researchers revealed they’d used AI to improve the screening process for cervical cancer. They created a neural network which learned to remove light interference from Pap smear photos and produce better quality images.

Though we’re currently witnessing an era of rapid advancement in the field, the notion of AI first surfaced in the late 1950s when Dartmouth College math professor John McCarthy conducted a summer research project in which he hypothesized that machines could learn every aspect of intelligence. Progress in the field ebbed and flowed through the 1970s and 80s. However, as technology companies produced increasingly innovative devices like smartphones and tablets, it became clear that AI was the next logical step. Though, due to some unexpected major advancements like the neural networks used in deep learning, AI has advanced rapidly in just a few years’ time.

Now, major tech companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook are racing to advance AI and incorporate it into many of their business units, from smart thermometers to smart speakers to chatbots. Many industries, like banking, media, law, travel, and education, are working to make AI part of their offerings too.

Development is happening at such a rapid speed that some of its advancements are disconcerting and even fear-inducing. In 2015, Google launched its Photos app, a machine learning image recognition software that could automatically identify the subjects in smartphone photos. However, controversy arose when the app started to incorrectly identify African-Americans as gorillas. It was a disturbing example of AI gone awry, and led critics to worry that similar gaffes could have huge consequences as AI becomes more pervasive.

Fearing AI

In October, Pew Research Center released a study about AI and the general public’s attitudes toward it. Among many findings, it was revealed that 72% of people fear robots could replace humans in many jobs.

It seems the average American’s fear of AI is rooted not in the unrestricted development of the technology but in its ability to alter the job landscape and put people out of work, leaving them unable to take care of their families. 76% of respondents worried that AI advancement would lead to further economic inequality, due to a lack of new high-paying jobs to replace those that have been automated.

We can see this now as Google and Uber test self-driving cars, and Tesla tests self-driving trucks, which, if successful, could put millions of drivers out of work. AI is also being used to analyze sales calls, conduct accounting tasks, calculate salary and benefits packages, and even deliver parcels. The fear that it could replace jobs is more than just a dark possibility — it’s a reality.

Technology has always replaced jobs. But the change came slow enough that people had time to adapt and reskill in many instances, and the subsequent generation focused on obtaining jobs that required higher skills. With AI, the time horizon of the change seems so rapid that the upheaval will be great, leaving many millions of people unable to adapt and get replacement jobs in the same salary range. Some of these worries may be already permeating into the ballot boxes in both the US and UK, and even elsewhere.

However, there’s more to AI than its potential to oust workers from their jobs, and it’s important to consider both the pros and cons. AI is being used to monitor farm land and maximize crops, in preparation for an age when nearly 10 billion people will need food but will have access to limited resources. AI is also improving the accuracy of other cancer diagnoses, and it’s helping stop the spread of abusive images online. And these are just a few of the many ways AI is working to improve our physical and digital lives.

If anything, the fear that many Americans possess is a fear of the unknown. We’ve only just begun discovering what AI is capable of, and until we know more, both positive and negative, surveys like those conducted by Pew will continue to produce similar results.

Read Part 2.