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Ben Reid

The arts will be key for humanity to thrive in the coming AI future

University of Canterbury associate professor AMY FLETCHER looks at the impact of artificial intelligence on our lives in the near future, and how best to prepare for the AI revolution.

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OPINION: Artificial intelligence (AI) is coming, ready or not, and people around the world are concerned.

Former American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently that humanity is “racing headfirst into a new era of artificial intelligence” without sufficient preparation for how that will impact the world.

In 2016, Stanford University launched the “One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence” or AI100, which plans to report every five years on the changes wrought by AI. Should Silicon Valley manage to extend our lifespans beyond 125 years, some of us may be around in 2116 to see how it all turned out.

On the geopolitical stage, China has released a road-map to becoming a world power in AI by 2025, presumably catching the attention of the United States and Europe, both of whom have their own ambitious plans to dominate this space.

In New Zealand, the recently established AI Forum, launched in July, is focused on mapping the current state of Aotearoa’s AI innovation ecosystem.

Artificial intelligence, a term coined by John McCarthy at MIT in 1956, is the study of computer systems that can simulate human cognitive processes such as learning, reasoning and decision-making. The smart machine has gone through several hype cycles since the 1950s, but now seems inexorable.

For proof, look no further than the robot-staffed Henn na Hotel in Tokyo, the second in a planned chain of international hotels that uses facial recognition instead of keys, porter robots to carry luggage, and robot housekeepers.

Seven human employees are on site to oversee a staff of approximately 140 robots. The choice to make the robot receptionists look like friendly velociraptors could be a warning about our eventual extinction or just evidence of a keen sense of design.

Robot hotels are the fun side of AI (except perhaps for people who hoped to work in the hospitality industry). At a more profound level, this disruptive technology is augmenting and reshaping everything from war to sex.

Andrew Ng, former Baidu chief scientist, has likened the importance of AI now to that of electricity a century ago. It is the enabling technology of the 21st century, the platform that makes predictive analytics, smart cities, drone warfare, personalised medicine and a myriad of other applications not only imaginable but feasible.

If Ng is right, artificial intelligence will become both ubiquitous and invisible. Most people will eventually give no more thought to artificial intelligence than they do to flicking on a lamp or starting a car. Yet it is this moment – when the technology starts to move from the exotic to the mundane – that the politics of artificial intelligence need to move to centre stage.

The issue that probably touches the majority of us most directly is the automation and employment issue. Expert opinion ranges widely from estimates of severe structural unemployment within the next 20 to 30 years to observations that the household refrigerator killed the ice delivery business.

For the optimists, technological change has been a constant force affecting employment patterns and job opportunities since at least the Industrial Revolution, and we will survive this next wave as well. It would be dangerous to be blithe about the potential impact of AI on truck drivers, dock workers, and retail employees, particularly in an era of rising populism and nationalism.

However, many of us will live longer, make more money, reduce our environmental footprint and unleash our creativity through AI. The key is to bring those most negatively affected by automation into the future via education and social support.

We also need to encourage and provide broad-based technological literacy, a skill as fundamental to citizenship in this century as literacy and numeracy were to the last one. Technological literacy refers here not to specific expert knowledge but to a confidence in one’s ability and right to engage in debates about artificial intelligence and society; to ask difficult questions that do not always hew to the agenda set by those who have an app to sell.

The much-beleaguered Arts, happily, will be essential to technologically literate societies. After a challenging decade or two caught between postmodern inanities and neo-liberal priorities, a window has opened for the Arts to reclaim and re-articulate its central role in cultivating the critical and creative skills that will allow humans to flourish wherever the machines may take us.

Genius engineers like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak will always be needed; no one should ever discourage a curious kid from an interest in math or engineering or rockets. Yet as we hurtle into the Age of the Smart Machine, let’s also recall that it was his co-founder Steve Jobs who not only studied literature and poetry (and, okay, physics and calligraphy), but who saw the connections between seemingly disparate ideas and things, and thus found the door to the future.


Dr Amy Fletcher is an associate professor of political science in the College of Arts at the University of Canterbury and a member of the Executive Council of the AI Forum New Zealand.

Ben Reid I head up the AI Forum of New Zealand - working to harness the power of AI to help bring about a prosperous and inclusive future for New Zealand and the world. The AI Forum NZ brings together technology firms, businesses, universities and the government to connect, promote and advance the national AI ecosystem.