Six Months on the AI Road

In the six months since the publication of What to Do When Machines Do Everything I, and my fellow authors, have been to all points north, south, east and west, spreading the good word. In that time we’ve spoken to hundreds of people individually, and thousands collectively, about the great story of our time - the rise of Artificial Intelligence. 

Here are a few of my personal observations from those last six months; of how people are thinking about and reacting to the emergence of intelligent machines; of the current mood towards AI; of media interest in this important topic, and where the current zeitgeist seems to be. 

  • The Explosion of Interest is Unprecedented - In my 25+ year career as a professional IT industry analyst I have never seen something take off and reach such dizzying heights so quickly. When we put our manuscript “to bed” in the fall of 2016 we little expected that we would be launching the book in the following spring into the middle of a maelstrom of AI sound and fury. 
  • Everyone is Interested - This interest has been widespread amongst the general “civilian” media as well as the technical and business press. If you run or edit a media property - of any type or  flavor in any part of the world - you have probably run a story on “the robots are coming for our jobs” theme in the last few months. 
  • Everyone is Afraid - AI clearly touches a very powerful nerve in humanity. “We” (aka “people”) have a visceral, real fear that one day robots will, at best, make us redundant, and at worst, enslave us. One doesn't have to get very far into a conversation with someone (or an audience) before seemingly intelligent, senior folks - who you might think already have a lot of pressing things to worry about - raise existential fears that they, or their kids, will soon be surplus to requirements. The success that writers and film makers have had over the last two hundred years exploring the dark-side of the robots theme - remembering that the first edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published in 1818 –is testament to the reality of this fear. To dismiss it lightly is to misunderstand human psychology. 
  • Dystopians Rule OK - There are far more dystopians than utopians around today. Optimists about the future of work are in the minority and have the burden of proof. In fact, on my travels and in my readings of the last few months, I have detected a strong souring towards “technology” in general. Concern over AI has become mixed with concern over the downsides of data analytics which has become mixed with sociopolitical questioning of the role of social media and “fake news” in the 2016 US election and the impact phones are having on “screenagers”. It feels like “Big Data” – with AI as its engine - is beginning to move into the same territory that “Big Oil”, “Big Pharma”, and “Big Soda” have come to occupy.  
  • It’s the Economy, Stupid - Interest in AI is heavily orientated towards its socioeconomics implications, rather than the underlying technology or on its impact on business. Even technologists and business leaders gravitate very quickly towards this broader conversation. I was at a dinner with a CIO of a large utility company outlining the themes and ideas within our book and what it could do for his organization; after listening to me for 10 minutes or so, he then launched into a soliloquy about how the long term prospects of his company could be fatally undermined as unemployment and underemployment took hold when machines do everything. He had clearly thought about this a lot in a very sophisticated way and was genuinely concerned. He wasn’t interested in talking about which AI platform he should deploy. 
  • Extrapolation Rules OK - taking huge leaps from what they know of AI today to what it might become in the future is extremely common. Due probably to the deep seated fears mentioned above, few people seems to have any compunction in thinking the very worst based on a small set of flimsy facts. Getting from Tesla “driver assist” to the wholesale collapse of the truck driving industry in 3.2 seconds is common in conversation and debate. Digging into the nuances of that dynamic and recognizing that a) this scenario is unlikely in the forecastable future and b) will take a long time (e.g. 30-50 years) to unfold even as it inevitably does, is less interesting and fun than throwing up one’s hands and crying “we’re doomed, we’re doomed”. 
  • Opinions Wanted: No Experience Required - Never have so many unqualified people pontificated on something so important so much. Most people (I think, I hope) wouldn’t discuss the future of neurosurgery, or quantum computing, or the Ornstein-Uhlenbeck mean reversion algorithm, unless they were a surgeon, or a PhD wielding mathematician or a coder in a financial services firm. Being a journalist or a teacher or a fundraiser or C++ programmer or a law professor though is no disqualification from having very strong opinions about the future of AI. Given its importance, perhaps it is understandably (and maybe even a good thing) that everybody wants to weigh in on AI. But the consequence is that 95% of the general media debate around AI is pretty worthless. 
  • Philosophy’s Important Too. Isn’t It? - Those with an arts based degree are very motivated to argue that “soft”, non-technical skills will be even more important in the coming highly technical age. As someone with an arts degree myself I’d like to believe that’s true but I can’t help thinking that it’s a clear case of the “wish being father to the thought”. Geeks are truly inheriting the earth, though I hope I’m wrong. 
  • AI Forever - The AI “wave” is a very long one. Inevitably, there will be an “AI backlash” in the next year or so, and the current frenzy will abate. But AI - being the great story of our time - will develop and spread into every aspect of our lives and society for the rest of our natural lives, and the lives of everybody alive today. Cloud Computing is 20 years old this year and whilst old news to those of us around at its inception is still a brave new world to many people and companies. AI is an even bigger wave than the Cloud and will take even longer to fully unfold.  
  • We’re Still at the Bottom of the 1st - Companies have only started scratching the surface of using AI – even the most sophisticated ones with the current biggest AI related deployments. It’s logical that the next few years will see an explosion of use of AI – following the explosion of interest – but I would hazard a guess and suggest that even in five years the actual real amount of leverage of AI in the typical insurance company or government department will be still relatively minor and a fraction of what it will be in 2067. The media are only beginning to become interested in thinking about the business implications of AI. 
  • WMDE Signal and Noise - Finally, finishing where I started, the professional “thought leadership”, and “content marketing” industry is having a field day with AI. Every consulting firm, software provider, academic, tech player of any background has pumped AI collateral into the market. I fully recognize that this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black but the speed at which this has happened has been noteworthy. I blame Twitter - the “echo-chamber” it creates spreads memes at warp speed and its gravitational pull is hard to escape. Thinking differently is harder and harder when everyone and their wife is so keen to share (putting it politely). I and my fellow authors take comfort in knowing that we spent two years writing our book so it would be hard to accuse us of jumping on any bandwagons. I fear though that just as the ease of making and distributing music killed the music industry the ease of creating and distributing thought leadership has worrying implications for the health of my 401k. 

The last six months have been an incredible ride. We don’t stop here though. The story of AI continues to develop and evolve and there are still many miles to go, case studies to outline, and anecdotes to spin. When Machines Do Everything there will still be presentations to make, conferences to attend, and heated debates to have. One day a robot or an avatar will stand before you as an ambassador from the strange new world you’re set to inhabit. But until that day – that happy day?! – you’re stuck with yours truly. I look forward to seeing you when I roll into your town.