We are seeing an increasing level of attention and discussion regarding so-called ‘Artificial Intelligence’ on social media, science/technology blogs and our society in general. A.I is referred to as though this is some kind of inevitable development which will displace, and replace human beings in just about every field of activity, but we have been living with vast amounts of ‘Automation’ for many decades!
Consider that the ‘Industrial Revolution’ was in itself a massive expression of artificial intelligence, machines which could do the work of dozens of weavers and spinners, lathes and turning machines, all kinds of automated processes and jobs which people used to have to perform were automated thanks to the ingenuity of machine designers and builders.
What we are seeing today, regarding this topic of A.I is simply a more focused description of something which has been with us since way before computers were even dreamed of.
Every school child has had to hand in project work which deals with the industrial age, but people seem to forget about these simple lessons, automation is the application of human intellect, it is human beings who figure out how to manufacture goods in more efficient, cheaper and faster ways!
Automation is a practice which humanity has been applying for a very long time indeed, to call this ‘Artificial’ is misleading because it is the result of organic thinking, it is human beings who set up these ingenious methods for amplifying the physical capability of machines to help us with our objectives. The big difference with A.I is centered on the ‘Digital’ nature of the machines. Computers can be considered as the means to automate intellectual processes, calculation, repetition of tedious formulas, and when we put this digital technology to work for us, we can arrive at some very impressive results.
We do not need to fear digital automation, we just need to be vigilant about how we apply it. Just like the machines of the 19th Century, when steam-driven looms enabled the owners of textile factories to produce huge quantities of Cotton, Wool, and textile materials. Throughout this period of human development, when enormous numbers of people were displaced, and forced to re-settle in the emerging towns, and cities in order to get employment, when skills were replaced by machines, there was an outcry and a resistance to this.
We have a similar resistance to the automation, and development of new kinds of machines which enable these vastly new forms of manufacture and work. There is always a social cost, and a time of disruption and change; our society is always changing!
We probably need to describe these new applications of digital automation in different terms, using the word ‘Artificial’ is actually not very helpful, is anything that human beings build and create truly artificial? We need to understand that automation, and the opportunities that computer-driven processes offer are entirely natural, and the product of human beings, not robots!
We have been automating work, and tasks for centuries, people have always needed to adapt and shift their acquisition of skills. Now more than ever we need to double down on providing digital literacy, and opportunities for learning. The base-level of understanding regarding digital technology is still depressingly low. The emergence of the World Wide Web offers us a powerful means to deliver education, and learning but too many people are not aware of this.
The 21st Century is turning out to be one of enormous change, and uncomfortable adaptation, just like the 19th Century was. Our ‘Information Age’ can only progress if more people can access the opportunities to apply the technology in their lives. Luddites, and anti-technologists continue to sound the alarm, but robots and artificial intelligence is only a threat if we allow it to become one.