I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to tire of the rampant sensationalism surrounding artificial intelligence. Don’t get me wrong – I’m just as excited by the prospects of AI as anyone else, and I don’t begrudge companies or people for their enthusiasm for a shiny new thing. I’m always intrigued by the possibilities of technology in business.
My “AI fatigue,” if that’s a thing, arises from all the doomsday predictions surrounding it. Every one of my social media timelines is overflowing with the fear of the (apparently) impending AI apocalypse. Let us search LinkedIn for five seconds:
Are you scared yet? That’s even before we get out the quotes from the truly big guns like the late Stephen Hawking or Elon Musk. Mr. Musk recently was recently quoted saying, “AI could create an immortal dictator from which we could never escape.”
Let me repeat: are you scared yet?
(Did you click the links above? You probably did. I don’t blame you, and I don’t blame the authors. I clicked those links; in fact, I clicked them again while writing this. Those are some pretty sensational headlines.)
Is there another way to think about this?
But let’s put the apocalypse on hold for a moment and try to view this rapidly emerging technology a little more calmly. I’d like to offer you another perspective on AI, because I think we have good reason to believe that an omnipotent AI is NOT coming to kill or enslave us all.
Why do I think this? Because I think we’ve seen this story before…
Meanwhile, 200 years ago…
I think AI is going through a similar story arc as… electricity. And I think that the AI story is going to – spoiler alert – end the same way.
Yes, electricity. It’s a utility now, and barely an afterthought in your day, but it wasn’t always so. Electricity had its own “1.0” product launch to the public a couple of centuries ago. And I think we can learn from that experience as we launch into AI today.
Consider this: which one am I talking about, AI in 2018, or electricity in 1818?
- Everyone is talking about it, but only a few people – scientist types – really understand it
- People are openly divided about whether it’s good or bad
- Uninformed opinion, speculation, wild predictions, and arguments abound (could we use this technology to prolong life? To reanimate the dead?)
- People flock to and are informed by popular sensational fiction depicting the technology rising up against its human creators (face it, James Cameron doesn’t do The Terminator unless Mary Shelley does Frankenstein)
Let’s follow the story arc to the ending. Again, which one am I talking about?
- A few good use-cases emerge, others fall by the wayside
- The best use-cases are scaled up and standardized
- The technology becomes a commodified product delivered as a utility
- People consume the technology without even thinking about it
- People look back and laugh at the wildly misguided hype from the early days
Electricity solves a million little problems I have every day. So many, in fact, that I don’t even think of them as problems anymore. I don’t have to go out and chop down trees and gather wood to heat my home office – I just turn on my heater. (I could give you lots more examples, but hey, it’s electricity, right? I’m sure you get my point.)
The future of AI looks a lot like the history of electricity
That’s where I think AI is heading. We’re going to find the good use cases, scale them up, standardize and commodify them, and deliver them like a utility through a shared public infrastructure. This has happened before, with electricity, and it is happening again, right now, right before our eyes, with AI as we build it into our cloud-based business software.
AI is going to solve a million little problems that we won’t even recognize as problems anymore, and probably a bunch of other little problems we didn’t even know we had. I won’t have to perform all these tedious tasks at work anymore. After I turn on my office heater, I’ll just turn on the invoicematcher, or the salesforecaster, or the financialperiodcloser, or whatever we wind up calling these little-problem-solving AI agents.
I don’t think AI is coming to kill or enslave us. I think it’s coming to enable us – to free us from our tedious work and allow us to concentrate on new and more interesting things, of which we are no more aware than our predecessors were when they shipped Electricity 1.0 back in 1818.
And so, in conclusion: Cortana, save this document; CoPilot, show me last year’s sales; Alexa, turn on the hall light; and Siri, call Mom.
Read An AI Shares My Office to learn more about why artificial intelligence is poised to be more a coworker and less a replacement.