Training and Development

Are humans the final solution in the face of AI onslaught?

“I’m sorry, I’m going to mention Karl Marx,” says Dr Barry Devlin, radiating authority as he paces the stage at Munich’s soulless ICM conference centre west of the city. “Capitalism carries the seeds of its own demise,” he reads out loud before calmly and quietly adding that “that weed is growing fast”.

Devlin, a consultant at 9sight, a business he started in 2008, was talking to around 1,500 open source data geeks at DataWorks Summit, a crowd he referred to as the “0.1 per cent, the experts”. His point is that artificial intelligence and machine learning will reach a stage at which it becomes more productive and more efficient than human intelligence. Not a new idea of course but Devlin’s context was that the room was full of people that could do something about it, make a choice: either keep the technology on the same trajectory or find a way to flatten it out.

It wasn’t so much a plea – although he did his best to create a hard-boiled vision of the future, a level of gloom falling over the room that was not lifted by playing You Want it Darker, a haunting Leonard Cohen track in the background. Devlin’s talk of universal income and capitalism’s days being numbered probably sent a shudder through the majority of attendees, who hailed from a mix of large corporations in technology, finance, utilities and transport.

Devlin accepted he was being a bit of a naysayer and the mood soon lifted a little as talk of a solution reminded everyone that when it comes down to it, this is tomorrow’s problem. Today, our jobs are safe, aren’t they? There’s still time to work things out, isn’t there, while the data scientists and developers do their thing?

Naturally, the lion’s share of thinking in the room gravitated towards data and its role in fuelling machine intelligence. Devlin’s view is that in the data industry, the intentions are moral. “We focus on the good, driving business and trying to change the world for the better,” he says. His view that in the past twelve months the bad side of data has reared its head with fake news and password theft is impossible to ignore. It threatens democracy he says and he’s probably right.


Profit before people

Whether or not it proves to be true that data scientists hold the key to our futures remains to be seen but the idea that the industry is a hive of virtuous activity is debatable. Corporations employing teams of data scientists are hardly going to become the saviours of work, jobs and capitalism for the sake of it. The drive for increased profits and efficiencies will continue unabated. It is human nature to react rather than anticipate.

But some businesses are actually taking this seriously. Nadeem Gulzar, senior development manager at Danske Bank in Copenhagen, says that it is something Danske spends “a considerable amount of time on”, mainly because it’s concerned about its own future. Nothing wrong with that.

Gulzar talks about “being embedded in the Nordics community” and the need to “respect the community” and this manifests itself in the business looking at the “unwritten rules” such as ethics and morality, words you don’t usually associate with the banking industry. So, what does he mean? Is he suggesting Danske Bank is actually trying to be empathetic?

“We’ve discussed whether we should have a department that takes care of only this,” says Gulzar, adding his department has 20 data scientists on the payroll. “The key is always to ask ourselves, ‘should we do it?’ before actually doing it.”

Gulzar believes this idea is driven by the need to understand customers more and look after their needs more effectively. He extends this to the idea of change, recognising how AI is maybe affecting its customers and work towards ideas and solutions that alleviate potential problems. It seems very Nordic. Finland has already started trialling the universal payment idea. The world is watching.

Gulzar is right of course. Danske and organisations like Danske should see themselves as part of the solution. After all, if their customers are not earning, not buying, not happy, the bank will suffer; but in reality, there is only so much they can do. Devlin’s idea of flattening the curve on AI development will be hamstrung by the march of capitalism, at least in the short term, and it will probably be too late to do anything about it, if indeed capitalism does start to creak. Where’s the immediate incentive for businesses and technologists? Also, most are no doubt uncomfortable with a notion that dresses like a communist doctrine – shared wealth, increased community work and so on.


Open road

For recently appointed president of Big Data software company Hortonworks, Raj Verma, himself a computer science engineer and maths major from Bangalore in India, education will play a key role. Verma also sees the idea of open source software with its community-driven computing solutions as central to the on-going development of technology and technology jobs. Does open source inspire technology innovation more than say SAP or Oracle? Certainly the future will demand agility and it’s no coincidence that Hortonworks and rival Cloudera consider themselves the platforms for advanced data analytics and machine learning.

So should we all retrain and become data scientists? Verma says that while he hasn’t had to go out and retrain during his 25-year career in IT, his kids will be faced with a future of re-learning.

“They will have to learn a new skill every five years,” he says, “which has an impact on our education system. We tend to create testing champions, not well-informed students. Schools need to create in pupils the joy of learning because that is the greatest education you can give kids.”

Verma is proposing a sort of open source worker who is resilient and has the ability to adapt, to keep learning and re-training. But as what? What will those jobs be? We can’t all be artists, musicians and carers. Devlin is right to question our advance to singularity. Humans are the problem here but humans too, well at least data scientists, still have time to become the solution.


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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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