Part 2: Will a computer steal my job?

Image result for edmund morel congo

I wrote recently about the limitations of using artificial intelligence to curate music (which is something many music streaming services do) and the impact that might have on my job as a ‘curator’ of live music. As a footnote to the conclusion I made in that post, I recently saw a great talk by Dr Robert E Smith entitled ‘The Banality of Artificial Intelligence’ which gave me some new food for thought.

First he made the point that the term ‘artificial intelligence’ (AI) sounds far more glamorous than the reality; it hints at a sci-fi future of robots and computers that can fully imitate human intelligence (don’t panic, that’s still years away despite what the media say). Artificial intelligence today is simply algorithms which, when laid bare, are just mathematical formulae. To oversimplify, you put information in one side of the formula and you get a value (a number) out of the other side.

He referred to a recent study which suggested 47% of job types have a high chance of being replaced by computers. As you can see from the graph, many of those are clerical jobs. Interestingly my job is both arts and administrative, so I’m not sure where that leaves me! He went on to point out the many reasons why the data in this graph is flawed.

He also told us the fascinating story of a shipping clerk from Liverpool in the 1890s named Edmund Morel. Edmund was doing a job which would definitely be replaced by a computer in 21st century. Whilst doing his repetitive paperwork he noticed large amounts of weapons were being shipped to the Belgian Congo while only rubber was being shipped back. With an astute political awareness, he realised that these weapons were being used to help strengthen the Belgian colonial rule in the Congo. He subsequently became a human rights activist and succeeded in highlighting the human rights violations in the Congo to the British government.

An algorithm processing shipping data would never have done this. To quote Dr Smith’s ‘take home message’, an AI system can give you a value but not values. Human values can’t be replaced by a computer yet. We might get close to it in the future, so we still have time to influence the moral choices of the machines: we are creating the formulae so we can teach them. However algorithms will always need human interaction and supervision. There will always need to be a shipping clerk, but perhaps there will be fewer of them.

To bring this back to my original conclusion, choosing music (usually) doesn’t require a moral judgement, just one of taste. But the story of Edmund Morel perfectly illustrated my point that humans synthesise information into abstract connections which AI could never replicate.  And just as Spotify’s Discover Weekly algorithms weren’t fully effective until they incorporated human choices, an algorithm will always need human interaction.

As Dr Smith said, usually algorithms don’t give you better decisions just economic ones. Most algorithms are programmed to encourage you to click through, spend money etc. Many people now get their news from Facebook, where the ‘news editor’ is an algorithm designed to get you to click and generate revenue. If you carry that financial imperative across to music what does that leave us with? Listening choices dictated by the big record labels, for one….

AI can give you a value, not values. – Dr Robert E Smith

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