The idea of Artificial Intelligence has been around since the early 1900s, originally in the form of fictional writing and later seen in films. The minds of these writers and film producers imagined a world where the role of robots in society was elevated from the role of machines in their present society. These individuals imagined technological advances, which would provide a machine with the ability to process sets of information and make a decision based on the information that the machine was taught to process.
Although exploration within the field of AI and robotic process automation evolved at a slow pace originally, advancement within this field is currently increasing at an exponential rate. Many ideas that were once considered merely dreams are becoming reality. An example of this is IBM’s “Deep Blue” computer, which in 1997 beat the World Chess Champion – Gary Kasparov in a game of chess. This is a somewhat trivial example as it is based on a game, but the deep learning required by the machine to improve its own performance to a standard that could challenge the best human has many far reaching consequences. As this kind of technology continues to advance, how will the roles of humans and machines change within the economy and society?
Before, delving into the roles of humans and machines, it is important to distinguish between two kinds of machines. Robotic process automation refers to the creation of software that can perform routine, rule based tasks in a standardised manner. AI refers to machines that have the ability to learn and make judgements based on previous learning and experiences. Figure 1 illustrates the fundamental difference between these two kinds of technology. Robotic process automation is rule bound (thinks within the box) and AI can learn from prior experiences (thinks outside the box):
Figure 1: Robotic process automation vs AI
Robotic process automation has already had a significant impact on a number of industries such as the manufacturing industry. An example of this is BMW’s production plant in South Carolina in the United States of America, where the X5 and X6 models are produced almost exclusively using robots with only a skeleton crew of humans required to ensure that the robots are operating correctly and without any malfunctions.
This is in stark contrast to the way cars were made for example in Chevrolet’s manufacturing assembly line in 1936 when the process was labour intensive. This assembly line employed thousands of employees and humans did the majority of the work, even employing toolmakers and other artisans to hand-make many components of the vehicles.
The effects of AI are also being felt in the office (as opposed to the production line as the previous example illustrated). Recently, Google gave a demonstration in which Google Assistant was able to make a live telephone call to a hair salon and book an appointment on behalf of its client. The impact that robotics and AI can make on production and our daily lives is impressive but is the efficiency and convenience that these processes allow worth the reduced role of humans in society?
South Africa’s current unemployment rate is 26.7% (Q1 2018), the gross domestic product contracted 2.2% (Q1 2018), the rand has experienced a period of depreciation and the outlook of the business cycle remains subdued. Economically, improved efficiency at a lower cost could assist South African businesses to improve their performance; however, this would almost undoubtedly be at the expense of much needed jobs within our society if the source of the improved efficiency was machine driven. In contrast to the needs of businesses, people are finding it more difficult to keep up with the cost of living and rely on their annual salary increases to keep up with increased costs. This places pressure on the wage negotiation process as both parties, employers and employees, are facing financial pressures which make it difficult to attain a win-win outcome.
The ethical question is how to balance the needs of businesses and the needs of people in a society that is experiencing unprecedented speed of technological advancement. The specific ethical issue to be addressed is what are the respective roles of people and machines in society and how should these be balanced in such a way as to improve business efficiency without widespread job losses?
According to Oxford University, 47% of jobs, as we know them today, will be redundant within in the next 25 years. This is a startling prediction as the impact on societies, particularly on less developed societies that do not have the infrastructure to adapt to such change, and that will have far reaching social consequences.
In 2017, it was estimated that the world’s richest eight people had more wealth than the poorest half of the world (3.6 billion people). If the rich are the owners of capital and the capital is used to replace people in business, this will ultimately lead to an even worse state of wealth inequality.
The idea of businesses pursuing the triple bottom line (people, profit and planet) has gained significant traction since the 1990s and has become the focus of socially responsible and sustainable companies. If these companies are to remain true to the values of pursuing the triple bottom line then the people and planet components cannot be forgone in the interests of profits generated by machines rather than by employing people. Ultimately, the question to be asked when determining the role of robotics and AI in business is what is its purpose?
Is its purpose to replace people to the financial benefit of a few capitalists or to improve society by
providing people with the tools to perform at a higher level?
Bryden Morton is an executive director and Chris Blair CEO of 21st Century.