AI and the Year Ahead

The large cabin was in total darkness.

Come marching up the eastern hill afar.
When is the clock on the stairs dangerous?
Everything seemed so near and yet so far.

Behind the wall silence alone replied.
Was, then, even the staircase occupied?

That, believe it or not, is the closing sestet from a sonnet, entitled “Gate,” that was composed by an Artificial Intelligence machine. Designed by computational linguistics researcher Charese Smiley and software engineer Hiroko Bretz, the machine won first prize in the poetry contest of Dartmouth College’s “Turing Tests in Creative Arts.” This annual competition, named after the pioneering British scientist, Alan Turing, who proposed measuring a computer’s ability to trick a human into thinking it was a person as a gauge of its “intelligence,” awards machine-generated examples of art, literature, poetry, and dance that were the most difficult to distinguish from human-created works.

The cliché-laden and largely nonsensical verse above doesn’t, I would argue, pose too much of a threat to the (albeit already embattled) field of contemporary “human-created” poetry. However, it is clearly impressive for a machine, and further advancements in computational linguistics are, Smiley assures us, likely in the coming year. With this in mind, moving beyond rhyming robots and automated alliteration to look ahead to the rest of 2018, what else might we expect to see from AI in terms of changes to the way we work and live?

As things stand, 2018 isn’t set to bring about such astronomical changes as, say, 2012—the year in which artificial neural networks reached a point of sophistication at recognizing images and patterns that allowed them to take on more complex problems and “learn” for themselves, “thinking” rather than merely reacting to a set of commands. However, prognosticators do foresee some changes on the horizon, not only in terms of personal assistants at home and self-driving cars but also in our places of work.

To assess these, let’s look at an industry around which there has been a lot of talk regarding AI and its potentially disruptive effects: law. In 2017, The New York Times announced: “AI is doing legal work,” adding valiantly, “but it won’t replace lawyers,” before ceding a portentous “not yet.” Will this “not yet” become a “now” in 2018, with AI replacing lawyers?

Well, the overwhelming likelihood is: no, it will not.

In reality, the adoption of A.I. in law firms will be a slow, task-by-task process. While, for instance, an artificial intelligence technique called natural language processing has proved useful in scanning and predicting what documents will be relevant to a case, other lawyers’ tasks, like advising clients, writing legal briefs, negotiating and appearing in court, currently lie well beyond the reach of computerization.

So, despite the popular notion that AI is “taking over the workplace” (think techno-uprisings in mid-2000s sci-fi films—e.g. I, Robot), it seems that we are a long way off from such apocalyptic usurpations. Indeed, AI is designed, as Dr. Khalid Al-Kofahi, the Head of the Center for AI and Cognitive Computing at Thomson Reuters, puts it, “not to replace you, but to augment you, to scale you, and to help you focus on more interesting tasks.”

Though reassuring, this does not mean that change is not afoot. Some major law firms, sensing more long-term disruptions as technology inevitably improves, have recently undertaken initiatives to understand the emerging technology, eager to adapt and exploit it. No matter what happens with AI, maintaining this responsive attitude at an individual, team, and organisational level will be the key to success in 2018 and beyond. After all, whether augmenting or diminishing, the one thing that is certain is that AI will, in the coming year (and years to come), have an increasingly substantial impact on the way we work and live—and we need to be prepared for it.

But in this context, preparation does not just mean setting up innovation initiatives. Unlike robots, we are driven by our emotions—the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology show this—and one thing our emotively-driven minds don’t like all that much is change. Since our psychological state is the best predictor of our performance, what we must do, as leaders, teams, and organisations, is to increase our understanding of how our thoughts and emotions affect our behaviours while enhancing our ability to harness them to our advantage. By building traits such as cognitive flexibility and enhancing tolerance of uncertainty, we can turn the “threat” of disruption and change into opportunity: it is not what happens, but the view we take of it that matters. This is the best thing we can do as we look ahead to the technologically-uncertain future.

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