News & Views

Rise of the Robots

by Emily Hare

Halloween may have passed, but there’s still an unsavoury threat looming on the horizon. Anyone who’s familiar with science fiction films should already be concerned that the robots are coming for us. However, last week, Tesla founder and all round embracer of new technological opportunities Elon Musk voiced his fears about the impending arrival of artificial intelligence (AI), calling it ‘our biggest existential threat’.

Speaking at MIT, Musk – the force behind Tesla, Space X and innovative transport system the Hyperloop – said: ‘I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish.’

The threat of AI (and the impending march of machinery in general) has been voiced over the years in fiction, film and political debate. Tyler Cowan wrote in his 2013 book Average is Over: ‘The machines are getting better education, more rapidly and more cheaply, than are their human teammates and potential teammates. That’s the root of the problem for a lot of workers.’

However, despite the perceived threat, Cowan elaborates: ‘It was true in the great Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century and it is true now: Machines do not put us all out of work, as eventually machines create new jobs just as they destroy old ones. It is also true that the new machines of our age will give rise to new and different workplaces and create a new set of winners and losers.’

Presumably Musk has taken Cowan’s thoughts to heart, as despite his warnings, he has invested in Vicarious, an AI company ‘building a unified algorithmic architecture to achieve human-level intelligence in vision, language, and motor control.’ The company has raised around $70bn from the likes of Musk and other high-profile investors including his PayPal co-founder Peter Theil, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

We recently wrote on Contagious I/O about Amelia, a hyper intelligent AI computing system who recognises not only words, but also their context, can pick up on emotion and continuously learns from her environment. IPsoft, the company responsible for Amelia’s development, believes that she ‘represents a turning point in our use of machines’, as she will be able to handle repetitive, tedious tasks so that human co-workers can concentrate on higher-level, more creative activities.

Amelia has been trialled in several Fortune 1000 companies, providing technology help desk support, expert advice and procurement processing, for example. During the trial phase, Amelia went from solving very few queries independently to 42% of the most common queries within one month. By month two she could answer 64% of queries independently.

And London-based DeepMind Technologies, owned by Google, is currently attempting to take AI a step further, designing a computer with human-like learning capabilities that will be able to programme itself. The Neural Turing Machine aims to combine the number-crunching capabilities of a computer with the neural processing skills of the human brain.

Artificial Intelligence has even made it as far as Lowe’s hardware stores in the US. The company’s Innovation Labs division is set to unveil a robot to help shoppers navigate their (admittedly massive) hardware stores with ease. OSHbot will meet customers at the door, ask them what they are looking for and then show them where they can find that item. And if customers bring something with them (like a screw that they need another pack of or a specific lightbulb), the friendly bot can recognise the item using a 3D scanner and then guide them to the correct location. OSHbot will launch in an Orchard Supply Hardware store in San Jose, California. Oh, and it’s multilingual, so there will be no problem in communicating with the variety of non-English speakers in the city.

Musk suggests that the solution to any potential problems lies in sober and considered collaboration between scientists and policymakers. However, as this doesn’t currently exist, and without kind of Arnie-style Terminator(2) in development to protect us, marketers need to consider how they can work alongside artificial intelligence as productively as possible, rather than in opposition . As technology like Amelia and OSHbot progress, we need to decide what parts of our roles can be usefully delegated to willing artificial intelligence, and how we can integrate this new technology into how people live and work in a way that isn’t threatening. Luckily, creating creative, emotional human insights lies at the heart of the marketing industry. In the future, that might become more important than ever. At least until the robots’ disposable income surpasses ours.