Our AI Future: AI Should Be Used For Mundane Tasks That People Don't Like To Do

Are robots taking our jobs? The fear of what automation will do to workforces is a common topic that comes up whenever people start to discuss artificial intelligence but an interesting counterpoint to this, and one that rarely gets discussed in favour of two very polarised views, is a middle ground: synergy.

By: Mandy J Watson
Posted: 29 August 2019
Category: Feature
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Zach George: The key thing is how we can use AI/machine learning to automate parts that human beings don't want to do and get them to focus on what they like doing, which is the emotion side of things

This is the third in a series of articles highlighting interesting technologies and concepts that caught my attention at the inaugural AI Expo Africa, which took place in Cape Town last year. The first article covers disruption (and volumetric holograms), the second looks at customer experience (and chatbots), this one explores synergy (and automation), and the fourth looks at new business models (and the insurance industry).

Internationally there is a lot of fear, some perhaps warranted, some not, that AI-powered technologies are going to take away jobs. There are interesting arguments both for and against the notion - for example "robots" or, more accurately, automation has been taking over many repetitive manufacturing jobs for centuries, resulting in increased worker safety and shorter, more productive work days. No one seems to think that has been a bad idea.

The clerical department of the Economics And Statistics Division of the government of the USA, photographed here in 1938, used to comprise a large pool of people
Above: The clerical department of the Economics And Statistics Division of the government of the USA, photographed here in 1938, used to comprise a large pool of people who spent their days calculating statistical data, as well as performing actuarial calculations. These days a handful of people would oversee the output of this work, which has been shifted to computers. [Image source: Library Of Congress/Wikimedia Commons]
Over the centuries many clerical and factory jobs have been automated and more recently jobs such as switchboard operator, lamp lighter, lift operator, petrol-station attendant, and checkout cashier, to name but a few, have been reduced via automation or eliminated entirely.

However the arguments often circulate that artificial intelligence will impact tasks requiring unskilled labour that are often performed in third world countries where the workforce costs are lower and educational opportunities are scare. The poor will get poorer and the rich will get richer; the workers in African countries are in danger.

It's an interesting quirk of modern South African society that we still have, for example, petrol attendants, went from parking meters to human parking assistants, and seem not to be running experiments with self-service checkout systems, much of which is due to both the national government and provincial governments creating jobs for unskilled labour. At some point, however, these jobs will no longer exist.

Our way of life is in sharp contrast to what is normal in Japan, where automation is prevalent (think of vending-machine culture, for example), which, as cyborg anthropologist Amber Case recently wrote, is because Japan has an inverted population pyramid with an aging population and not enough young people to do all the work. (South Africa, of course, has the opposite problem - for now.) The result is increased automation with a focus on exoskeletons to enable people to perform tasks beyond their physical capabilities, and an explosion of service robots.

A self-service checkout station
Above: It's been more than a decade since stores in many Western countries started implementing self-checkout systems but we are unlikely to see these take hold in South Africa for decades. [Image source: Flickr/Wikimedia Commons]
The topic of job losses arose during the closing plenary session of the inaugural AI Expo Africa and, while the arguments on both sides were sound, Zach George, a co-founder of Startupbootcamp Africa who was a keynote speaker at the conference and ran the "innovation" track over the two days, had an interesting take on the topic.

"What I would like to see is more startups that [do] not replace humans but replace mundane elements of what humans don't like doing. For example, large call centres in South Africa: human beings that work in these call centres absolutely hate it when clients call them and say, 'Hey, what's my chequing account balance? Oh, I need a copy of my ID. I need a copy of my proof of residence.' It is boring, mundane work that no one likes. It is inefficient and does not create any value to either party and you end up spending 10 minutes on a call where you could have done it in 10 seconds. The key thing is how we can use AI/machine learning to automate parts that human beings don't want to do and get them to focus on what they like doing, which is the emotion side of things.

"It's this human-AI mode that keeps moving from bot mode to human mode to bot mode - that is true AI because everything else [is just] machine learning. Those two words [AI and machine learning] are used so interchangeably but machine learning is easy to do [because] it's essentially a sequence of algorithms that teaches someone how to answer a question.

"True AI is the ability to say, 'When do I switch from machine learning to a human to make an intelligent decision?' That's what I'd like to see more of and I saw quite a few good ideas during the AI 'innovation' track."

We've seen a local example of this innovation described in the companion article in this series that looks at customer experience. FinChatBot is developing chatbots for financial institutions to make the experience better - and faster - for customers, which helps to convert leads into sales for the institutions, but the systems offer an additional unintended positive consequence in that the quality of the work will improve for call-centre agents and customer-service representatives as they will have to answer far fewer mundane questions and instead will have their time freed up to tackle more complicated queries that require a human touch and are, one would hope, more rewarding.

Automation does result in some jobs being lost but, at the same time, new jobs are appearing, such as those for data scientists, programmers, and drone operators, that didn't exist 100 years ago. Those require skilled labour, however, which is currently in short supply in much of the world.

Perhaps, then, the gap is not in the current - and future - availability of work but rather in education.

Mandy J Watson was a media guest at the 2018 AI Expo Africa conference. The 2019 conference is being held in Cape Town at the Century City Conference Centre on 4 and 5 September 2019.

Tags: Technology

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