In his 2016 book But What If We’re Wrong?, writer Chuck Klosterman makes the somewhat obvious declaration that we’re usually wrong about the future. Considering that many of us have a hard time predicting what we’ll do for the holidays this year or if we’ll even be working in the same job next year, it’s not that surprising.
What is surprising is a recent report from Cornell University, which included the opinions of 1,634 experts predicting the future of AI back in 2015. One of the most surprising “revelations” concerned when AI would finally beat a human player at the board game Go. The experts said it would happen by 2027. As we all know, Google accomplished that goal this year, a full 10 years early, sparking an upswing in AI development. (It’s one reason the MB 2017 conference taking place this week in San Francisco is all about AI.)
Another prediction is related to self-driving cars and trucks. The experts said it would happen within 12 years, but GM has already demonstrated that it could be much sooner than that after testing the self-driving Bolt EV in multiple cities. Remember that the Bolt will be a production-ready, Level 4 autonomous car — e.g., full AI control. It’s a ridiculous prediction, even in 2015, because the major automakers even back then were definitely talking about Level 4 cars being on the road by 2020 or even sooner. How about translating languages on the fly? The report says 2024, but we know Google is already working on neural machine translation, and Waverly Labs has announced it will release earbuds that translate as people talk.
Perhaps some of the most laughable predictions are related to the far-future “bots replacing humans” concept. They are laughable for two reasons. One is that it has already happened. You could say a bot has replaced a movie expert in the And Chill app. Another is that, when we say “replace” humans, it is not as troubling as you think. The prediction about an AI replacing humans in retail — that an AI will be better than a human in that industry — paints a nightmarish scenario that reminds me of The Matrix. The AI will also use us as batteries, right? An AI will always augment, and when it replaces, it will create an opportunity. That’s because, even in 100 or 200 years, humans will still write the code that powers a bot. It’s always about augmentation.
In a retail setting, maybe the bots will provide suggestions, or deal with customer conflicts, or run the entire store, but to suggest that an AI will be better than a human or replace a human shows a misunderstanding about what AI actually does. I always get confused when people say humans will be out of work. As with any industrial revolution, new jobs will emerge — they always do.
Here’s my prediction. Eventually, AI will be so integrated into the devices we use, our homes and cars, and our workplaces that we’ll stop separating the work an AI does and the work a human does. We’ll finally grasp the concept that an AI is programmed to provide assistance, not impede progress. Even when robots drive our trucks without a human involved, the industry will shift to become more about logistics, traffic control, and optimization. The danger is seeing people as less important, as mindless drones who take a backseat (literally) to the bots, and thinking that — for example — truck drivers won’t find other occupations supporting the self-driving truck industry.
The report makes some wild predictions about surgery, writing a bestseller, and other functions, but the problem is that AI development is accelerating faster than anyone predicted. Self-driving cars, retail bots, AI-powered medical technicians — they are closer to reality than we can imagine. The humanless store could happen next year, if Amazon gets its way. It’s a better idea to focus on the rate of change and how to augment this industry, finding better jobs for people who will see more automation in their field, and do a lot less of the doom-and-gloom prognosticating. In the end, that’s what will move the industry forward — not the guesswork.