9th August 2018

Artificial Intelligence – a blessing or a curse?

AI is everywhere. Every Silicon Valley start-up worth its seed-funding seems to be working on an AI application to revolutionise your world, while simultaneously coming after your job and threatening to wreck your economy. And so it's very timely that the Business Breakfast at the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta (organised by Thrings, Bristol Energy and Business West) proudly presents its debate for 2018: “Artificial Intelligence – a blessing or a curse?”

While this probably doesn’t mean we can expect self-piloting dirigibles any time soon, it does emphasise how this is one of the topics of the moment. Indeed, along with clean energy, sustainable transport and an ageing population, AI is one of four “Grand Challenges” currently facing the UK, as identified by Her Majesty's Government.

What you feel about AI will largely depend on how you define it. The phrase is widely used to mean anything from a “neat bit of coding” to deep-learning algorithms to fully autonomous robots and, along the way, it’s become a potent mix of buzzword and bogeyman.

It doesn’t help that certain sections of the media can’t type those two letters without getting into a sci-fi froth over killer robots and intelligent toasters. And it really doesn’t help that a lot of “AI” is currently snake oil - clever, trendy people finding clever, trendy ways of making money. Some “AI apps” have turned out to be nothing more than websites fronting a bunch of humans pretending to be AI, all the while playing for time and waiting for technology to catch up with the hype.

In this respect they are no more advanced than the Mechanical Turk – an 18th century chess-playing hoax. But for every such “Wizard of Oz”-style humbug, there’s a genuine team of researchers in a genuine lab trying to get computers to drive cars or understand natural spoken language or recognise images. And they are making serious progress.

Technological advances bring clear industrial benefits. Computers are currently very good at performing simple, mechanical tasks, especially repetitive and iterative ones. They are usually quicker and more accurate than human operatives, and less likely to tire, break down or demand days off.

Modern industrialised economies have already come to terms with a loss of traditional blue-collar jobs, and workforces have had to upskill to take on more supervisory roles. So far, white-collar workers have been spared a similar cull on account of their responsibilities being beyond the wit of machines. But we’re promised that their time is coming soon. Should we all start panicking?

For the time being, perhaps not. It’s probably not impossible, even today, to program an artificial lawyer or doctor to perform basic tasks - but the cost-benefit analysis currently doesn’t stack up. Trained humans are still relatively cheap and people like interacting with other people. Would you prefer to hear a diagnosis from a flesh-and-blood doctor in a white coat or have something akin to an ATM beeping at you?

In due course, we should all get used to technology playing an increasingly significant role in our lives. There may still be a human at the end of the line, but they will be consulting smart databases and analysing advice generated by self-teaching algorithms. And if this means fewer of us in traditional professional roles, economic history suggests that subsequent generations will find gainful employment in jobs we haven’t yet imagined.

The Bristol International Balloon Fiesta Business Breakfast, organised by Thrings in partnership with Bristol Energy and Business West, is taking place on Friday 10 August. Follow @ThringsLaw on Twitter from 5.30am for live updates from the early morning balloon ascent and panel debate.


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