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AI will free up our time and energy, the question is how we then use it?

We met Dr Fabian Braesemann, Departmental Research Lecturer in AI and Work at Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. Dr Braesemann researches the Science of Success, including which technologies will thrive in the digital age and what the future of the workplace will look like. He answered our questions about what we should be expecting from AI in the near future.


WHAT IMPACT IS AI HAVING ON OUR LIVES?

The most important effects can be seen in the labour market, how we work and where we work. There have been assessments of what the effects of AI might be in the future, one thing all these studies have in common is that they are ambiguous in terms of the time frame and the tangible effects. AI is a technology like other general-purpose technologies we are used to. In our lifetimes, new technologies have appeared, like the internet and smartphones and we have accepted them in our daily lives. Of course, there have been unanticipated effects: the internet and the smartphone led to fake news and everything else good and bad happening on the internet. As such, we cannot know for sure what will happen with AI technologies. No one has seen such a huge uptick of generative AI technologies such as ChatGPT. A likely result is that AI will have differing effects in the labour market, with some able to increase their productivity and others finding their work replaced.


HOW WILL THE TECHNOLOGY AFFECT OUR LIVES AND WORK?

We will become consumers of numerous AI services, with data being used to draw conclusions and make predictions to tailor these services; many will be useful and convenient. We are already users now. Just think of the voice assistant Siri. Automatic facial recognition technology is also used on smartphones. We can search through our photos to find ones of specific people. The AI technology working here behind the curtain is called computer vision; it uses the colour intensities of every pixel of an image as data points and learns shapes, contours, and eventually faces using the machine learning technology ‘artificial neural networks’. Of course, this technology can also be used for controversial means like tracking populations and how they move in cities, and this is being done by autocratic regimes across the world.


CAN AI IMITATE HUMAN EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE?

This is a very difficult question because it draws on many different concepts. The worry is that AI will behave like AI in the movies, getting a life of its own. This is not going to happen. Of course, I cannot foresee the future, but this is very, very unlikely. What I expect, though, is that AI tools might be used incorrectly or abused by people, which can cause harm. Think of industrialisation in the 18th and 19th centuries, suddenly, there was a large-scale problem of machinery accidents with people working in factories. In the same way, we see accidents with self-driving cars, but also other unintended consequences that could be the stock market crashing because of automated trading algorithms accidentally trading as a reaction to fake news. But will AI have human emotional intelligence? I don’t think so; these machines might mimic behaviour we would expect in certain situations, but they are not emotionally intelligent themselves.


SHOULD WE WORRY ABOUT AI?

It’s unavoidable with complex systems, such as the interaction between technology and society, that they will have unintended consequences. But we should not worry about the technology per se. Instead, think of it as a hammer; it could be used to construct and build, but it could also be used to smash a skull, so it can be used as a weapon. Technologies can be used in the same way. We are seeing the adverse use of AI technologies, for example, in warfare with the drones being applied by Ukrainian and Russian armies in the war in Ukraine. But I would like to emphasise that the technology itself is neutral. It is neither good nor bad. More knowledge and education are needed, allowing people to make informed judgments about how it should and could be used.


WHAT NEW OPPORTUNITIES WILL AI BRING US?

These are vast across all fields. Most likely, it will be like the advent of industrial machinery technologies. Think about the steam engine, originally developed to pump water out of mines. Its impact on agriculture was something no one had foreseen; suddenly far fewer people were needed, which freed up a huge workforce that went into industrial manufacturing and ultimately led to an unprecedented growth of large cities. In the present day, many people work in services. We will again see people’s energy being freed up, and this will be channelled into different types of activity. We will see new markets arising, new products and services in all kinds of fields. In finance, for example, automated trading has largely replaced manual brokerage via the phone. As a result, we saw a vast increase in the different financial products you could buy via trading apps and online. The opportunities are incredibly vast and will outweigh the risks to some extent. We’ll see a much more personalised experience in many fields and will definitely see more convenience as machines will be able to predict what we want and when. Overall, there will be a rise in productivity in the economy but also frictions in the time needed for the workforce and businesses to adapt to the ‘new machine age’.

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