Without question, artificial intelligence is becoming, well, more intelligent.
The technology advancements raise questions about artificial intelligence (AI) vs. human intelligence and whether some tasks require uniquely human attributes, such as human intuition. These questions have also prompted much concern about the fate of human jobs in the wake of AI.
Artificial intelligence (AI) involves the development of computer systems able to perform activities that normally enlist human intelligence. Such tasks include visual perception, speech recognition and decision-making. AI systems share common attributes: the ability to ingest data; the ability to adapt and react to data in their environment; and the ability to project multiple steps into the future. Machine learning, a certain application of AI, enables computers to use algorithms give computers access to data to teach themselves.
In the growing debate about AI vs. human intelligence, the given wisdom has been that AI will augment human tasks, but not replace them, anytime soon. Still, a recent talk by Andrew McAfee at the Interop 2017 conference bolstered the argument that machines are edging in on supposedly uniquely human tasks.
McAfee noted that 20 years have passed since a computer beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov. A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, McAfee described the pace of technology change as rising exponentially.
In the 20 years since the match between Kasparov and Deep Blue, “the gap between computer ability and human ability has only gotten more significant,” he said in a keynote session in mid-May at Interop.
“We still underestimate how big, how fast, technological progress is,” McAfee said. “I still keep getting it wrong.”
In just the past two years, McAfee said, artificial intelligence has defied expectations. In the fall of 2015, AlphaGo -- an artificially intelligent system designed by researchers at DeepMind, a London AI lab now owned by Google – lost, 5-0, to the European Go champion, Fan Hui. Six months later, though, machine learning made an aggressive, almost human, comeback. AlphaGo defeated a reigning human champion of the game, Lee Sedol. For McAfee, the event is a tidal shift in the hitherto “clean division of labor” between humans and computers.
In game two of the five-game matchup between Sedol and AlphaGo, the computer program defied basic rules of Go strategy – making a move only a novice Go player would make in err. By employing these sorts of unconventional tactics, AlphaGo won the series, 4-1.
“By every tenet of Go strategy — it does not make any sense,” McAfee said. “I think we’ll see this pattern over and over.”
But those who believe in the uniqueness of human intelligence argue otherwise.
“Certainly AI is proving to be an invaluable tool, and intelligent workflow is going to be the labor-saving norm within just a few years,” said Scott Robinson, a SharePoint and business intelligence expert based in Louisville, Ky. “But business processes involve intelligent thought and intelligent behavior. AI is great at replicating intelligent behavior, but intelligent thought is another matter. We don’t fully understand how intelligent human thoughts develop, so we’re not going to build machines that can have them anytime soon.”
“[McAfee’s] discussion misses the fact that human workers bring deep knowledge to business processes that AI can’t capture,” Robinson continued. “An office worker knows how other human beings think and behave, so she can anticipate delays or opportunities. There are implicit tasks in all areas of business that are undocumented but natural and deeply ingrained. AI can’t get anywhere near those implicit tasks and passive knowledge.”
McAfee noted that AI has definitively arrived in enterprise business operations as well.
In June 2016, the DeepMind team demonstrated the power of AI in an enterprise setting. The team proposed using AlphaGo technology to manage a Google data center. The facility’s data center managers were skeptical about ceding control to AlphaGo. As McAfee recounted, the team’s attitude was, “‘We’ll let you run this experiment, but don’t expect too much. We do this for a living, and we’re really good at it.’”
But as soon as the team turned over control, data center performance improved not by a little, McAfee said, but by a lot. Overall energy efficiency, expressed in the power usage effectiveness (PUE) metric, decreased by 15% and cooling bill fell by 40%. “
A graph showing a day of testing of power usage effectiveness in the Google data center, with machine learning control turned on, then turned off.
Proponents of a unique human intelligence aren’t swayed.
“It’s not a surprise that AI can do better resource management than human beings,” Robinson said. “Computers were invented to have them do well what human brains do poorly. But there’s more to business processes than task execution: Could AI get the inspiration to merge a smartphone and the iPod into a handheld digital apps platform?”
While the evidence is clear that machine learning and AI-enabled robots will likely supplant human work, the question is how many and how soon.
McAfee’s analysis suggests that these developments could gather steam in the near future and apply not only to repetitive tasks but also to knowledge work. According to the McKinsey Global Institute’s report “Harnessing automation for a future that works,” 49% of work activity could be supplanted by automation by 2055.
At the same time, McKinsey’s “What’s now, what’s next in analytics, AI, and automation” compared the changes wrought by AI to those of the Industrial Revolution, where old tasks gave way to new human opportunities. “We cannot definitively say whether historical precedent will be repeated this time," the report said. "But our analysis shows that humans will still be needed in the workforce.”
The report concluded that while technology is supplanting human activity, digital platforms from Amazon and Alibaba to Uber and Upwork and the growing importance of data analytics will create new efficiencies and opportunities in the job market.
Lauren Horwitz is the managing editor of Cisco.com, where she covers the IT infrastructure market and develops content strategy. Previously, Horwitz was a senior executive editor in the Business Applications and Architecture group at TechTarget;, a senior editor at Cutter Consortium, an IT research firm; and an editor at the American Prospect, a political journal. She has received awards from American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), a min Best of the Web award and the Kimmerling Prize for best graduate paper for her editing work on the journal article "The Fluid Jurisprudence of Israel's Emergency Powers.”