Touching one’s heart with your heart: Kai-Fu Li on AI

Will the emergence of AI herald a new golden era of prosperity in which humans lounge by the poolside sipping cocktails while intelligent machines cater to their every whim and need? Or will it lead to the destruction of civilization and turn the hapless survivors into slaves of the machines?

At this stage, nobody knows the answer to these questions, but that hasn’t stopped a growing band of tech luminaries, business gurus, and scientists issuing increasingly strident warnings about the forthcoming AI Apocalypse that is looming ahead of us – unless of course we mere mortals listen to (and not doubt pay for) their advice.

Even though I have worked in the hi-tech industry for over twenty-five years, I have no compunction in admitting that I am next to clueless about the potential impact of AI. Since there are few better ways of learning about a subject than writing about it, I’m therefore planning to post some pieces on related articles and books that capture my attention and advance my understanding of this field.

Since I just got back from a trip to Shenzhen, I thought it would be a good idea to start this series by linking to this article on CNBC featuring the thoughts of China tech guru Kai-Fu Li on the subject. He makes the by no means unfamiliar but still staggering argument that robots are likely to replace 50 per cent of all jobs in the next decade across all industries “because AI is pervasive.”

More curiously, however, he argues that even though they will destroy half the world’s jobs, these “superhuman” devices will “create a huge amount of wealth for mankind and wipe out poverty.” The reason for this, he says, is: “touching one’s heart with your heart is something that machines, I believe, will never be good at.” As a result, he advocates that service jobs should be considered “first-class” employment.

Given the speed with which automation is spreading in the restaurant sector through the installation of kiosks for ordering meals, it’s not too difficult to question the basic premise of Li’s “touch your heart” argument. When lining up to check in at an airport or hotel or to order a burger, most people would value speed and efficiency over a fake smile and apology from a harassed service person. Even in a hospital, many patients would value the timely delivery of their medication by a soulless robot over a hurried dispensation by a grumpy nurse who’d had a fight with their partner just before leaving for work.

Naturally there are occasions when human interaction is more effective and valued than machine interaction, but they are probably not as many as people such as Kai-Fu Li would like to think. Human-to-human interactions are complex and involve a host of different and sometimes conflicting emotions. Why risk, for example, an unpleasant encounter with a pushy clothing store sales clerk when you can stand in front of a camera like the Amazon Look that will tell you whether a particular garment suits you? For me, at least, it would be much easier to say no to a soulless machine than a real-life person!

On the other hand, however, I might find it much easier to delegate my decision to an all-knowing machine and end up walking out of the store with far more stuff than I had bargained for!

To borrow the immortal words of Donald Rumsfelt, there are far more “unknown unknowns” about AI than even the greatest experts on the subject are prepared to publicly admit. While I can see the potential of AI to boost overall economic prosperity by making processes and transactions more efficient and seamless, I don’t yet have a clear idea of what kinds of new jobs it will help create to replace the ones it destroys. One thing’s for sure, though: they will have to involve a lot more than touching each other’s hearts if they are to be sustainable.

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