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Spectator Event report: Will artificial intelligence put my job at risk?

19 June 2014

Will computers make humans redundant? It might be the biggest question of our time. Last night Spectator Events, in partnership with Microsoft, hosted a panel discussion to answer the question ‘Will Artificial Intelligence put my job at risk?’ A fascinating and wide-ranging conversation about the technological revolution ensued.

The Spectator’s chairman Andrew Neil was joined by Microsoft’s Laboratory Director Professor Andrew Blake, journalist Bryan Appleyard, the TUC’s Nicola Smith and Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

Professor Andrew Blake, up first, sounded an evangelical note, emphasising the positives of technological change. A distinguished scientist himself, Blake argued that artificial intelligence is already transforming our lives — at Microsoft HQ in Seattle, he revealed, they have an automated lift that senses where you want to go and a robot receptionist — and he pointed towards radical advances such as simulated language programming and driverless cars. ‘There is no doubt about it; work is going to be quite different from the way we have known it,’ he said. ‘We have something of a new industrial revolution coming our way… This technology is really here and it’s approaching commodity availability.’

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Bryan Appleyard then took to the stage to denounce the very term artificial intelligence. Taking issue with Professor Blake, he said that AI didn’t exist and wouldn’t exist for the foreseeable future. He dismissed it as ‘a marketing slogan which is intended to make the subject sound more exciting.’ However, Appleyard stressed that ever more powerful computing really does pose a threat to jobs and human happiness. ‘We should unplug them at once,’ he said at one point.

Next, the TUC’s Head of Economic and Social Affairs, Nicola Smith, examined the threat AI poses to the labour market. ‘The key point is that technology can lead to enormous advances and to employment gains, but it doesn’t mean that the rewards will be shared fairly across the population.’ Government, she said, should not be ‘passive observers’ of technological revolutions; Britain should take the initiative by establishing a policy framework to protect workers from being marginalised by machines. Smith was not entirely pessimistic, however: she said that the state should embrace the technological revolution and use it to generate ‘good quality jobs in green energy, IT and creative industries.’

The final speech was delivered by Jamie Bartlett, who reminded everyone that the point about artificial intelligence is that it is ‘artificial, that is, not real.’ AI should be defined as ‘trying to imitate and simulate human intelligence.’ Bartlett agreed that jobs are at risk, and that ‘this technology is pretty terrifying – there is a risk that computers will take over.’ The crux of Bartlett’s argument was that in future AI will shape politics and anti-politics in the years to come. He envisioned a future in which dangerous extremists were not jihadists or animal rights activists, but anti-technology fanatics.

There was much discussion of the Turing Test — and the recent story of Eugene Goostman, the computer programme that fooled Turing judges into thinking it was a flesh and blood 13-year-old. The panellists agreed that Goostman’s machine, while funny, was hardly a convincing example of intelligence.  ‘We always seem to be 20 years away,’ said Bartlett. ‘The more we study the brain and understand it, the more realise how complicated it is.’ Bryan Appleyard said that machines lack the capacity for ‘interiority’. He concluded by saying: ‘As human beings, we mustn’t forget what amazing creatures we are.’

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  • tjamesjones

    This is a little disappointing. The focus on ‘artificial intelligence’ brings out the worst arguments – the boosters with their weak examples, and the critics who make laboured jokes at their expense. The secular trend is that software is only getting better.

    The jobs that are under threat are any jobs that can be reduced to a process that you can describe. And I think the interesting point is that there are many more jobs in this category than you might think (there is a paper out there on the internet called The Future of Employment, ranking jobs by how easy they are to automate). At the high risk end are Tellers, Loan Offices, Insurance Underwriters, Accountants etc etc. At the low risk end are Dentists, Hairdressers, Occupational Therapists etc etc.
    We’ll still need accountants, but much of their work they will do using software, and the number of accountants we need will come down dramatically. Good for productivity, but can we create an economy where everybody is in services or is a creative? Or as with manual labour, are an even larger number of people going to be essentially economically redundant (however we choose to package it). How much handcraft can we sustain?

  • english_pensioner

    The jobs of quite a few MPs should be at risk.

  • Daedalus


  • swatnan

    You’ll still be required to put the plug in, and switch on.

  • Tom M

    All of which reminds me of a decision taken to get rid of the tea lady in the office many years ago because she was too expensive. Looking at the price of the (umpteenth) replacement tea machine on offer today, the regular maintenance costs and what it costs to keep it filled up I reckon keeping the tea lady was a cheaper (and better) option.

  • HookesLaw

    As far as lifts are concerned, lift attendants complete with pillbox hats, have already been made redundant thanks to people being brave enough to press a button themselves. Note that every building still has a staircase. A lift sensing what you might or might not be thinking is as massive a level of pointless overkill as one could care to imagine.
    This level of argument for ‘AI’ is risible.

    A diagnostic machine at reception which relies on some sort of heuristic database programmed by humans is hardly artificial intelligence.

    And ‘a policy framework to protect workers from being marginalised by machines’ … just what we would expect from the TUC. What it really means is ‘a policy framework to prevent the TUC being marginalised by progress’. Based on what we read here there is no danger of Artificial Intelligence putting the jobs of learned professors at risk – they with blather on forever.

    • The Masked Marvel

      Preserving the status quo of more expensive products and services in order to protect unions harms the poorest and most vulnerable. When will the Left ever be called out on this? One would have thought this was an open goal for Conservatives.

      • HookesLaw

        We returned from holiday the other day to find the artificial intelligence of our washing machine had blown a circuit board. A man not a robot fixed it and he drove himself.

        If the Spectator were serious and had a modicum of wit it would run a competition for a suggestion for a 4th Law of Robotics.

        • The Masked Marvel

          Actually, nanotechnology will lead us to the point where the washing mating will be able to fix itself most of the time.

          In any case, if the Spectator ever ran such a competition, the suggestion for a new law would have to be presented in the form of a clerihew or some such.

          • HookesLaw

            Running through self diagnostic programmes is not AI, neither is miniturisation.
            The washing machine itself of course is a case in point where lots of washerwomen and Chinese laundries were put out of work. Victims of ‘mechanisation’.

            • The Masked Marvel

              I was referring to actual nano-bots which physically do repairs. The technology is not that far off. Lots and lots of people will be put out of work eventually, and not just unskilled labor and factory workers.

        • Daedalus

          Sorry the 3 laws cover all bases as Asimov intended.

    • Tom M

      Quite agree. It’s like those recorded messages you get when you call up a company. The questions the machine asks never seem to apply to your particular problem.
      Seen quoted somewhere recently: Artificial Intelligence, no contest against Natural Stupidity.

  • CharlietheChump

    Robots will take the jobs of those whom our education system fails every day.

    Gove has started the fight back.

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