These developments will be unlike significant technological advances of the past – the coming future shock isn’t simply the shop floor assembly line replaced by a robot welder, or spray painter, sashaying its way across a production line on an air mat. This time many types of work, including technically-skilled managers and highly trained professionals, will begin to experience intelligent machinery.
Take for example, ‘time and motions’ analysis, the marshalling and deployment of resources – which is being rapidly replaced with AI allocating assets and scheduling teams, dynamically matching skills with tasks and resources. Shift up an evolutionary gear, and AI will soon be hypothesis testing to support innovation and strategic development.
Is the writing on the wall for human work and has the long heralded ‘age of leisure’ finally arrived? Will we all be donning our pin-neat Lacoste tracksuits while pursuing hobbies and sports all day long; or in the dystopian future will AI lead to mass unemployment?
It turns out to be rather more complex than that. The recent use of AI in the aerospace industry shows this complexity. Twenty years ago the received wisdom was that computational fluid dynamics (CFD) would replace wind tunnels and therefore the skilled teams which supported their operation. Today, CFD is setting the pace for the evolution of wind tunnels—not diminishing their role, and the skilled men and women operating these critical facilities still have worthwhile careers to pursue.
What is happening here is that advanced computer technology is being used to augment existing engineering - win-win for both man and machine. What is also clear is that rule-bound AI doesn’t cope all that well with the unexpected such as a systems failure emergency. At these crucial moments highly experienced professionals – well educated, well-trained humans – still need to step in when these events occur.
But there is no doubt that many of us worry about the impact of AI on our lives and particularly on our work. In a sense this is a haunting which originates from a techno geek’s view of the world. We look through the eyes of the wizards of ‘Silicons’ Valley, Glen and Fen who survey the future through their own lens of hard technological determinism. So what we are left with is the notion that somehow technology just develops and we humans have little impact on the velocity or speed of this development.
I believe there are fundamental problems with this dystopian view.
It is essentially myopic - this single lens perspective leaves a great deal of the real story untold. By contrast, five hundred years ago Thomas More wrote Utopia in which he described an imagined island community. He described their practices of engagement and marriage, their celebrations of life and death, and their laws and ways of living. His was a much richer and interesting view of the future.
It is also essentially masculine – it leaves women and the lives of women out of the narrative. Well not quite – would the technology films Ex Machina or Her work if the robot or operating system was a man? But in the main, this obsession with a future driven by pervasive and frequently rogue AI, casts women in a certain blow-dried and supplicant role.
And it is profoundly ambivalent about time. And here is the paradox: most machines are there to provide us with the gift of time - and yet these very technologies rob us of our gift of time. Is the future really 300 emails a day, and is the only way out of this a cleverer machine?
The result of this dystopian view is that it removes or negates human resolve. Rather than imagining we humans are the central players in this vision of the future, we are instead assigned a walk on part unable to make our needs and hopes and aspirations felt. We see ourselves as hostages to the machines and so we focus on what we have lost (jobs, peace of mind) rather than what we could gain in the future.
It also reduces the big questions. As we try to frame the future and prepare for it, it seems to me that Thomas More was right – the big questions are about how we want to live with each other, what our communities could look like, what it is we value, how we might think about what we want to tell our children. Surely our questions about the future should centre as much on this as on technology?
In a world where technology has reduced some of our more onerous tasks (imagine life without a washing machine) our conversations should be about what makes us more human – how the future could be more about creativity, innovation, intuition.
Perhaps now, in the decade of the anniversary of More’s Utopia, it is time to re-imagine our future in its totality, embracing families and communities, work and rituals?