Monday 9 June 2014 1:10 am

Artificial intelligence is on the rise – and humans must adapt

FOR the first time ever, a computer programme has managed to dupe experts into thinking that it was a 13-year old boy. This is a major milestone in the progress of artificial intelligence, and thus a hugely important development for labour markets, for the global economy and for all of us. The Russian computer programme – which goes by the name of Eugene Goostman – managed to convince 33 per cent of the judges at an event at the Royal Society last week – and thus became the first ever to pass a proper, pure version of the so-called Turing test.

The test was conceptualised by Alan Turing, one of Britain’s great mathematical geniuses, for the first time in his 1950 paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence in Mind, a top artificial intelligence journal. The central question considered by Turing was how to determine whether a machine can think –  he readily acknowledged that it’s hard to define both what “thinking” means and what passes for a “machine”.

The best way to solve this problem, Turing argued, was to test whether digital machines – computers that manipulate the binary digits 1 and 0 – can act in a way that is indistinguishable from humans. He decided that 30 per cent of human judges would have to be fooled under certain test conditions. Until last week, this had never happened.

The passing of the Turing test is reminiscent of a previous milestone in 1997, when Deep Blue, a chess-playing IBM computer, beat  world champion Garry Kasparov. It is clear that education systems across the West have so far utterly failed to work out what their response should be to the gradual rise of intelligent machines. At this rate, computers will be substantially more sophisticated and will regularly be able to pass the Turing test in a decade or two – and  will perhaps be pretending to be 15-year olds, or even older humans by then. The direction of travel is certain; the speed less so, of course, and neither do we know exactly where it will all end.

Some will worry about a dystopian future and try and halt progress – but that would be a recipe for disaster. Without improvements in IT, robotics and the rest, much of the technological innovation that the world can look forward to over the next few decades would suddenly disappear – and with it, any possibility of increased productivity growth. GDP per capita would grind to a halt, and as with all zero sum games, tensions would mount and the very survival of global free market capitalism would be at risk.  A free society isn’t compatible with permanent stagnation.

Instead, the workforce must adapt in the same way that is has done to other key technological breakthroughs, including the invention of trains or of the motorcar. Repetitive or mundane tasks in factories have long since been better performed by robots.

Wherever one looks, machines have replaced manual labour: in agriculture, in manufacturing and mining and now increasingly in services, with self-operated checkouts in supermarkets the latest manifestation of this trend, which started with the       industrial revolution.

Yet every wave of technological change has led to an increase in the total number of jobs in the economy. Old jobs are destroyed; but new ones are created in greater numbers. The rise of artificially intelligent computers will merely add to the tasks that can be mechanised and performed more cheaply by computers. In that sense, and for the time being at least, the impact will be incremental. But schools and universities need to act with a far greater sense of urgency. They need to equip young people for a world where there will be an even greater premium on cognitive ability and being able to manage complex systems. We shouldn’t fear the future – but we need to equip ourselves with the tools to make the most of it.
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