When we talk about automation, we often imagine a future in which everything we do will be almost entirely handled by machines. Cars will drive themselves. Management decisions will be handed over to an AI. Even the creative arts might one day be taken over by robots.
But for the time being, automation isn’t quite there. And so, some compromise between machine and human worker is needed. A synergy between the two has already yielded great results – just think about an autopilot guiding a plane for the majority of a flight, and human pilot intervening only for take-off and landing.
A more commonplace example of machine-assistance comes in the form of a spell-checker on a word-processing program. And these are getting more sophisticated. Apps like Grammarly and ProWritingAid not only identify grammatical or spelling errors; they now also identify more stylistic problems, and help us to make writing clearer and more concise, even when it isn’t technically wrong.
All of these innovations follow the same trend. They eliminate predictable, repetitive work like data processing and information collection. This frees up human resources for other, more rewarding tasks. We live in an age of unprecedented mechanisation, and yet employment has never been higher.
In the world of motoring, the endgame is clear: the removal of human beings from the driver’s seat. When this advance is widespread, it could spell the near-elimination of accidents. But it won’t happen overnight.
Firms like Uber are field-testing their AIs in the real world using human drivers, who act in a supervisory capacity – much like the pilot of a commercial jet. They’re there to take the wheel should something in the program go wrong.
Other advances are less obvious, and so incremental that we barely notice them. Just think of a machine doing the work of route-calculation, and presenting directions to the driver throughout a journey in the form of verbal cues.
This not only makes it easier to get from place to place; it has enormous implications for the commercial freight sector. Just think of an entire fleet of trucks, whose every move can be directed and supervised by a central human controller.
With the help of masses of data-collection technology, these humans can be provided with up-to-the-minute information about every vehicle in a given fleet, allowing them to make the best decisions in the short term to eliminate bottlenecks and improve efficiency.
Another respect in which AI is already lending a hand is targeted marketing. Marketers now have a better idea of what customers are after than ever before, because the data is now available, and the AI is in place to analyse it.
Intelligent call tracking benefits businesses looking to maximise the conversion rates of their advertising campaigns, but it also means that consumers can enjoy calls and emails that are more relevant, and therefore less likely to prove a nuisance.
Of course, voice-assistants, of the sort previously restricted to satnav systems, have found their way into the home in the form of devices by Amazon and Google, and on smartphones, too.
This makes it easier to perform everyday tasks, particularly for the elderly and lesser-abled. But speaking a command aloud is often faster and more intuitive than typing it into a mobile device, even for those of us who can type competently, thus, the future of human-machine interaction is likely to involve a great deal of voice-automation.
This advance helps to drive jobs in the e-commerce and logistics sector, as it makes it easier for us to order supplies online. But it also creates highly-skilled, technical jobs.
The technology which powers these devices is often, by necessity, proprietary and opaque. As a consequence, knowledgeable humans are required to explain how certain decisions were arrived at.
The EU’s GDPR affords every consumer the right to demand how an AI decision was arrived at – and in a world where every mortgage, loan and stock-market gamble is informed by a machine intelligence, it’s likely that there will be enormous demand for such professionals in the years to come.