AI is here and we have no need to fear it

Walk into any McDonald's these days and chances are, you'll be ordering your chicken mcnuggets with a machine rather than a human.
A robotics researcher working at the University of SheffieldA robotics researcher working at the University of Sheffield
A robotics researcher working at the University of Sheffield

When you pay at your local supermarket, you’ll often use the self-checkout rather than go through the tills. Automation and AI are already transforming workplaces across the country. This is no longer a future that we talk about but can’t imagine – it’s happening now.

AI and automation have been hot topics for sometime. Perhaps it’s because the world’s eminent thinkers are seemingly raising red flags left, right and centre. Professor Stephen Hawking has suggested that the creation of powerful artificial intelligence will be “either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity.”

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Meanwhile entrepreneur Elon Musk is even less on the fence: "If you're not concerned about AI safety, you should be. Vastly more risk than North Korea,” he tweeted last month.

But what struck me earlier this month, was just how much these “sci-fi-esque” technologies are already impacting on our lives. Arguments about whether Kim Jong Un and his ballistics are less of a threat than AI or not, aside, the business world is not only sitting up and paying attention – it’s taking action.

I was at the NatWest Tech Conference, speaking to panels of industry leaders and it became clear just how much business has embraced AI. When we polled the audience of business leaders, 51 per cent said they were planning to invest immediately in AI and the Internet of Things (which sees everyday objects become internet enabled). Almost 60 per cent said they saw AI as useful and friendly rather than threatening.

But rather than the “blockbuster” vision of AI and automation – driverless cars and humanoid robots – we heard about a rather more mundane smart technology which simply becomes another utility – not something to fear.

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“Machines are already more intelligent than humans,” remarked on​e​ participant.

“When you have to add up numbers or work out percentages, do you rely on your own brain or reach for the calculator?”

Indeed, Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired magazine US, predicts that rather than a charismatic, human-like consciousness, AI is more likely to look like any ordinary, tech device. A “common utility” which will serve as much or as little as we need.

There is much to gain. In the 2017 Economist Intelligence Unit report, Artificial Intelligence in the Real World, 75 per cent of business executives said they’re looking at actively implementing AI in their workplaces in the next three years. Cost cutting was cited as the driver. Would Google have forked out $400m for London AI startup DeepMind, if the opportunities were not significant?

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Perhaps we need to change our attitudes. In Japan, for example, robots are seen as friendly and helpful. In China meanwhile, robots are largely viewed as slaves. But in neither culture is the technology feared in the same way as it is in the UK and US.

AI is already much better at doing certain things that we are. From data analysis to disease diagnosis, the machines are already outpacing us. IBM’s Watson has been helping doctors to diagnose rare diseases for over a year now. AI like Watson can rank a patient’s likelihood of having a disease in a matter of seconds. But surely this is a good thing?

​​SoftBank’s Group CEO Masayoshi Son told attendees of Mobile World Congress in February that we can expect computers running AI to exceed human intelligence within three decades.

“I believe this artificial intelligence is going to be our partner. If we misuse it, it will be a risk. If we use it right, it can be our partner​," he said.​

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Science has often uncovered potentially threatening discoveries in the name of advancement of the human race. I wouldn’t argue against the logic of Hawking and Musk, but AI and automation technology is already impacting our everyday lives and right now it’s making business better.

​​​​Michael Hayman MBE is co-founder of Seven Hills, co-founder of StartUp Britain and co-author of "Mission: How the best in business break through".