“Maybe the only significant difference between a really smart simulation and a human being was the noise they made when you punched them” – Terry Pratchett
In 2011, two legends of the game show Jeopardy! were recalled for an epic match. Brad Rutter was Jeopardy’s all-time biggest money winner; Ken Jennings held the winning streak record of 74 consecutive games. Rutter and Jennings had been asked to take on an existential challenge – to pit their human intellect against IBM’s cognitive artificial intelligence system, Watson.
The rookie robot had spent years preparing for the televised match – over 200 million pages of text, including the full text of Wikipedia had been loaded up. From the outset, machine left man trailing in its wake, with Watson powering through questions ranging from literature to law, politics to pop culture.
At the time, Watson was a room sized network of servers and data processors, generating so much heat that it had to be kept apart from its fellow contestants. Today, this super computer is a svelte model – the size of 3 pizza boxes stacked together.
Watson has been putting its prodigious skills to more than just winning prize money. A true polymath, Watson has begun diagnosing cancer with a success rate that challenges top oncologists; it communicates in multiple languages (including Mandarin, Spanish and Japanese) and has landed a plum job as a wealth management expert for Singapore’s very own DBS Bank.
Watson’s key feature is that it is able to understand and answer questions in normal language, allowing easy integration into any human work environment. In other words, it works like iPhone’s Siri, but on steroids. There are no signs of any limits to Watson’s growth or reach – just this August, IBM announced that the artificial intelligence system would soon gain the ability to “see”, advancing it even beyond its natural language capabilities.
Having conquered the medical and financial world, Watson has now turned its laser sights on lawyers. Earlier this year, its legal cousin Ross, was launched as the world’s potentially most formidable legal search engine. Ross is capable of researching over 200 million pages of simple text in under a second. It also gets smarter with time as it “learns” from user history, providing increasingly accurate and reliable answers.
As a subversive homage to the power of machines in the practice of law, internet entrepreneur Tim Hwang set up a faux law firm Robot, Robot & Hwang. A quick visit to the firm’s website will show that its Senior Partners are two super computers – the Apollo Cluster and “Daria” XR-1029, each with their own areas of specialised practice. While the firm is not operational as yet, Tim Hwang is convinced that he will be able to replace lawyers with code after acing his term as a summer associate at a prestigious law firm by writing software to handle simple tasks he’d been assigned.
Sceptics argue that artificial intelligence has a long way to go before it is able to imitate the “high level” human thought, judgment and analysis required to function in most professions. The reality is that it will not need to imitate human thought in order to undermine the human workforce. The strength of artificial intelligence systems lies not in actual “thought” but in brute computing force and speed. And unlike young professionals, Ross or Watson will be just as effective without sleep, caffeine or work life balance.
Attack of the Clones – Machines Take on the Business World
A hallmark of today’s business world is the exponentially increasing amounts of data being produced. Artificial intelligence can assess, assimilate and analyze this data, empowering businesses to make better informed decisions, and predict future actions of customers, suppliers and competitors.
“Watson” sounds like a nerd, a diligent student with his nose buried in a book, and his butt buried in a library. That’s not who he is. Watson, to our minds, is a gladiator. The muscled behemoth whose strength, lightning reflexes and nimble footwork will carry the day for his master. This is presumably why DBS uses Watson to run its wealth management program, matching customer profiles with investment portfolios; and why travel company WayBlazer relies on Watson to understand customer purchase patterns to provide streamlined and bespoke travel options.
It would be a mistake to dismiss artificial intelligence as just large data processors, however. Douglas Copland, “artist in residence” at Google explains that machines are beginning to mimic human intuition at the deepest levels – natural language, hierarchical and even spiritual thinking. This is where the machines take on professionals.
Junior professionals, tasked with collating information and churning out work based on templates, risk becoming irrelevant against this technological onslaught. In the legal industry, for example, US-based LegalZoom provides low-cost, standardised legal documents online, allowing millions of people to create wills, incorporate businesses and register intellectual property rights. Similar open source platforms with legal document precedents and online dispute resolution software (currently resolving a yearly average of 60 million low-cost transactional disputes for websites such as Ebay and Paypal) provide commoditised, pre-packaged legal products, effectively cutting lawyers out of the supply chain.
The Empire Strikes Back – A New Hope
Richard Susskind, the legal futurist, refers to artificial intelligence and its end-applications as ‘disruptive technologies’. But it’s not just lawyers at risk. All businesses will have to adapt to disruptive technologies or risk extinction. The commoditisation of products and services across markets is one foreseeable consequence, with the machines managing a much larger portion of the grunt work required in any industry. These faster and cheaper alternatives will be a boon to end-consumers, but will displace hitherto “safe” white-collar jobs.
Man has one of two options: trying to remain relevant despite the machines, or evolving human skills and services to add to what the machines can do. Whichever approach a business takes, the growth of artificial intelligence will be as much a sociological shift as it is a technological one.
Robots may be able to process information more rapidly and accurately than the flawed human intellect but they remain limited in other areas. We retain an advantage by the simple fact that we are human – all forms of business will necessarily require that human input, judgment and soft skills.
While artificial intuition can suggest strategies and provide options, being a top professional requires more. Professional judgment isn’t limited to the factual matrix, it requires an understanding of the situational psychology and human dynamic. Some situations are best resolved with a deft combination of persuasion, tact and goodwill. Computers can reliably spit out hard data, but they cannot build trust, convey empathy or communicate with body language. As we move forward, in a world increasingly populated by robots, our challenge will be to harness machine intelligence to our advantage. After all, it is surely this ability to continually evolve that sets man apart from machine.