We have just begun to acclimatize to the changes that our economies and societies have undergone due to digital technologies. Yet people, companies and governments must now ready themselves for the next big wave of technology; artificial intelligence (AI). This new leap into the unknown arouses many fears and fantasies. Yet the massive diffusion of AI will not just deepen and accelerate the economic and social transformations initiated by the digital era. It will also bring forth new business models, new organizational patterns and new social practices, which, in my opinion, possess the power to reverse some of the negative trends for which we tend to blame technological change.
AI: More than a new technology
AI, in its core definition, is not just a buzzword. As was the internet in its time, AI is much more than a new technology and will reshape both our daily habits and the world as we know it. The reason for this is that AI is the science of self-learning software algorithms that execute tasks otherwise typically performed by humans. AI does not generate insight or predictions but can be used to make critical decisions. It thus touches upon the essence of human life and capabilities for the first time in the history of mankind.
In public debate, there is currently widespread anxiety about AI and significant fears of what is to come. These include various nightmare scenarios, in which intelligent machines take control of humans or we all become useless and live in an automatized and sanitized world. However, on the contrary, AI could certainly be a catalyst for increasing human prosperity and even contribute to a more equal world if we are able to foster its development according to our fundamental societal values.
The development of personal, portable AI or AI as a commodity
AI will soon become commoditized and democratized, just as electricity was in its time. Today we use computers, smartphones, other connected devices, and, mostly, apps. Whilst access to internet technologies has constantly improved over the past decades, very few people are able to program these and generate income by intelligently exploiting consumer data, which, in theory, is not theirs. GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple) and the Chinese BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent,) are among the most prominent players in these fields.
Tomorrow’s world would be different with the emergence of relatively simple, portable AI devices, which might not necessarily be connected to each other by the internet, but would feature completely new protocols and peer-to-peer technologies. This will significantly re-empower consumers.
Because it is decentralized, portable AI will be available for the masses within a decade or so. Its use will be intuitive; just as driving a car is today. Portable AI will also be less expensive than motorized vehicles, given its relatively low material costs. Most of all, it will be personal and neutral –not sponsored by Amazon or Google but invented by a completely different enterprise, whose business model will not be based on the collection and exploitation of user data.
Someone told me that the smartphone was the remote control of our lives. With portable AI devices, we will almost certainly move back to take control over our lives again, since these will feature a personalized and impenetrable environment with comprehensive yet completely private information about us; their unique users.
AI as a game changer
Like all disruptive innovations, AI has the power to potentially open up the game for greater equality and inclusive prosperity. There are three examples in which AI is particularly promising: consumer power, the fight against monopolies and empowerment through work.
Firstly, traditional companies will regain direct access to consumers. Money will be spent on actual goods and services again, rather than on third-party commissions to data owners. Where taxis are ordered today via platforms like Uber, tomorrow my personal AI assistant will connect to those of the nearest taxi drivers around me. The assistant will reliably check the accident rates and ratings of the taxi drivers, make an informed decision, order the taxi and pay the full fare to the chosen driver. This also means that web-based interfaces designed for humans will progressively disappear, leaving the space for information in binary form for machine use. This is something that companies and traditional industries are already able to prepare for now.
Secondly, current monopolies will be shaken up. At the moment, the GAFAs and BATs of this world seem to be on a never-ending winning streak. Yet, with world data doubling every day and the development of devices less and less dependent on data input, GAFA and BAT will most likely lose their current status. Machine learning is one of the first forms of AI, and something that the GAFAs make use of. But it is not the only form. Just as a child does not need to be shown hundreds of cats in order to learn what a cat actually is, machines will be able to reason quickly. It will thus be sufficient to show them an image once or twice in order for them to know what to make of it. Hence, there is a big chance that today’s digital giants will be disrupted by completely new players, just as they themselves disrupted Cisco, Microsoft and Nokia only 10 years ago.
Lastly, the emergence of powerful AI will probably mean the end of work as we know it. We will see a difficult transformation period, in which the eradication of jobs caused by digital technologies will become a major issue for politics and the economy. However, if we prepare and adapt in a clever way, we might then enter a new golden age of work. When all repetitive tasks are performed by intelligent machines or devices, autonomy, creativity and empathy will become the core competencies required for any job, regardless of the level of qualification. Hairdressers, nannies and actors will be just as in demand as psychologists, engineers, neuro-scientists and CEOs. In their essence, jobs are a service rendered, for which others are willing to pay, and, ideally, something that brings some intrinsic satisfaction and recognition to those that execute them. The possibility of having robots take over parts of our daily tasks means that the nature of work will certainly change. Its role in a well-functioning society will probably not.
How to best prepare for the AI era
If we want to preserve our values, our current work and life ethics and quality of life, we will have to prepare for the new AI era, because, as stated by Tancredi Falconeri in “The Leopard” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedus in1958, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”.
It is vital that we, instead of leaving the field open to others, positively encourage the development of AI in our societies with intelligent investments in education, infrastructure and funding. The good news is that the majority of today’s most advanced AI experts do not want to work for Google and the like, but rather wish to conduct their research independently and create new businesses on their own. They are not all located in Silicon Valley or Shenzhen but can be found in hubs all over the world. Yet, we must be very careful not to drive these experts into the arms of today’s internet giants by neglecting their specific needs in terms of financial support, resource availability and freedom to operate.
We must start to envision the future and the world we want to live in to actively shape it. Regulatory frameworks will be necessary if we do not want to risk leaving the world to machines one day, or, to the happy few manipulating them.
Clearly limiting the use of machines and, at the same time, granting access to new technologies to all citizens will be vital for the future and wellbeing of our modern societies. This is what we must tackle today, and should discuss at #GPDF17.
About the author:
Charles-Edouard Bouée is the global CEO of Roland Berger and specializes in disruptive innovation, new technologies and digital transformation. His latest work, “La Chute de l’Empire humain”, a fiction story about artificial intelligence, was published in March 2017. He also sits on the HBS Alumni Board and other business and community organizations.