Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: AI and the Future of Business

Don't fear the machine, it's already enriching your life

Artificial intelligence should not be feared; it is only as powerful and as smart as we allow it to be. There are some things machines are simply better at than humans, but humans still have plenty going for them, and we are in control.

Thanks to Hollywood and its clichéd, dystopian representation of artificial intelligence (AI), humans are, by nature, intrinsically scared of the thought of a world run by machines.

In a world where humans still believe we are cavemen who have rightfully worked our way to the top of the food chain, being overthrown by a supercomputer seems to be the only logical progression of AI.

But this is not the case.

We are sceptical by nature, afraid of that which we do not understand. But should you be scared of AI? There are many things a machine can do better and more efficiently than a human, such as trawl through thousands of web pages to find your closest service station and pull monthly accounting reports; and there are many things humans can do better than a machine, such as feel emotion and understand -- not just recite -- new things.

IT professionals need AI, and AI needs IT professionals. We take a look at how we have lived, and can continue to live, happily ever after.

According to Toby Walsh, professor in AI at National ICT Australia (NICTA), you are already immersed in a world of AI.

"Without realising it you've been witnessing some AI developments every time you're using your smartphone -- just by asking Siri questions on your smartphone, you've been using some AI," said Walsh.

"Every time you make a credit card transaction, that's approved of or disapproved of by an expert machine-only system that is checking for fraudulent transactions and saving the banks money. There are lots of aspects of your life that it's already starting to touch."

Screenshot: Asha Barbaschow, ZDNet

Walsh said Siri is programmed to respond with a few witty answers to engage with users, but Siri is not capable of thought, or desire -- none of the machines in our lives have any desire to do anything other than what they have been programmed to do.

"Your accountancy program doesn't wake up in the morning and say 'I'm bored of adding up numbers, I'm going to go off and take over the world', or even write poetry, or do anything else," the professor said.

"It doesn't wake up in the morning and say 'I'm going to do something different today' -- it doesn't even wake up in the morning."

Screenshot: Asha Barbaschow, ZDNet

Appen, a Sydney-based global provider of speech-based computer learning, has helped the likes of Microsoft to enhance its search engine user experience.

Appen's CEO Mark Brayan and vice president of operations Stephen Norris are behind the taskforce that sees Australia provide the world with machine learning expertise.

"A lot of the work we do is involved in leading-edge product development for the major technology companies around the world; we're a company that's contributing to artificial intelligence through the subset of natural-language processing on the global stage, with nine out of 10 of the major technology companies around the world using our service," said Brayan.

"We improve, or enhance machine learning; speech systems -- the likes of Siri and Cortana -- are only as good as the data that they're fed."

Appen's task with AI is to train such machines to recognise words and understand them.

"We break a word down into its fundamental components, phonemes -- they all come out reasonably similar, despite accent and the like. Then when the machine hears them, it looks up similar-sounding phonemes and strings them together into a sentence or phrase."

Norris put it quite simply: AI is labour saving.

"There are a whole bunch of fields in the IT industry that use machine learning; it's all about sifting the wheat from the chaff," Norris said.

Brayan added that human beings in the IT industry will continue to rely on AI as a labour-saving device.

"The machine does work for us," he said. "It is as simple as that. The machine relies on us to make it more effective."

Enter Facebook to the AI stage with M, a personal digital assistant inside of its Messenger app that completes tasks and finds information on your behalf.

"It's powered by artificial intelligence that's trained and supervised by people," Facebook said in a blog post.

"Unlike other AI-based services in the market, M can actually complete tasks on your behalf. It can purchase items, get gifts delivered to your loved ones, book restaurants, travel arrangements, appointments and way more."

Appen's Norris said that he does not believe the likes of M are in any way human-like, or representational of human intelligence, labelling it as "some other weird thing that is not like anything human".

Norris said he believes computer intelligence is going towards a very specialised place -- it is a bunch of really smart things that are only really smart in a very limited domain.

"I have been told for decades that computer programmers will be obsolete in five years as computers will be smart enough to program themselves; it's always actually been 20-plus years away. As people realise how hard it is to have a self-programming computer, it gets further and further away.

"When I started as a programmer, there was no Google, so if I had some problem, I had to go look in a book, talk to colleagues, or spend over a week trying to find the solution. These days, I can go to Google and search for the solution and within three minutes I can find someone else, somewhere in the world, who came across the exact problem, and a forum of people offering their help."

"As a result of artificial intelligence, I think we will see a lot more automation of quality testing in the IT industry. We're going to see a lot more applications of machine intelligence for quality assurance -- particularly in software development -- and system robustness. You can already see that stuff starting to happen, but I think that's probably going to be the next big thing."

The future IT professional will be like a kid in a candy store, with the abundance of information available to help them do their job more accurately and efficiently.

"I think there's a lot of machine intelligence that is going to help in terms of making code more robust, automatically testing itself, but it is all stuff that people can do -- almost everything AI can do, a human can do, it is just far too time consuming for a human," Norris added.

A familiar tale

Taking the mundane jobs away from those in the technology sector can only be a positive, as it opens up space to be more creative and though-provoking.

Brayan highlighted a familiar tale.

"Technology will make people redundant, but it will also spawn other jobs," he said. "Some industries get killed off, or at least irreparably change, or get blended, and others will come along."

"This technology will make all of our jobs different, and it will make all of us more productive. And history shows this. Like the Agrarian Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Internet Revolution, all of these things just ramped up productivity to a previously unimagined level."

"I don't think that we'll create things that will replace us; I think we'll create things that replace our jobs, but we will have new jobs as a result."

IT workers are already immersed in a world of artificial intelligence, and many already rely on it every day.

"AI in science fiction is all about things that sound and talk like humans, like the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica. In reality, it's not like that: computer intelligence is all about doing things that humans can do, but making it easier for them," Norris said.

"A computer only knows that which a human has taught it."

Bard Papegaaij, research director for Gartner's office of the CIO group told ZDNet that there are things humans have that a machine will not gain any time soon, such as creativity, serendipity, thinking outside the square -- illogical leaps that actually lead to discovery, and even the ability to make mistakes that lead you to a place you otherwise would not have gone to.

"It's those mistakes that bring out a whole new idea or whole new technology," he said. "If you get computers to become as intelligent and as emotional as people, they will start making the same mistakes. It may not actually be a smart idea. If you want to have real AI you will need to accept that it will come with downsides as well."

We cannot predict how humans will adopt AI in the future, but there are definitely unexplored opportunities.

The belief seems to be inherently based on logical progression: the machine will only ever be capable of knowing what a human can teach it, and is not capable of free thought. Siri, Cortana, and their ilk can respond to a question in a manner that appears to be opinion-based, but what it's actually doing is following an algorithm and looking up a database of possible answers, and providing one of those selections.

There are many things a machine can do better, and more efficiently than a human, and there are many things humans can do better than a machine. IT professionals need AI, and AI needs IT professionals. You are safe, we are in control.

At least until we work out how to teach a machine emotion.