EDITORIAL — What work will look like in the ‘Age of AI’

Brian Walters demonstrates a robotic arm he built with Roberth Davis at the University College of the Cayman Islands.

Our modern age is rife with questions that could have been (indeed, often were) posed by genre writers such as Ray Bradbury, H. G. Wells or Philip K. Dick. We’d like to pose a few of our own:

Is it truly safe to put our lives in the “hands” of self-driving cars? Is Amazon’s Alexa spying on our idle chatter? What happens when smart machines become smarter than the people who operate them?

Many of the most critical questions brought about by advancing technology are related to work. What will workplaces look like as robots and computers increasingly are deployed to perform tasks that once demanded human intelligence or skill? How will it change our economies? Our communities? How can humans hope to compete?

Those engaged in low-skilled jobs, such as fast-food workers or assembly line workers doing repetitive tasks, are already being heavily impacted by their robotic counterparts. Many McDonald’s fast-food restaurants already have “self-order,” user-friendly machines installed in their dining areas. In the United States, Henry Ford, who deployed the moving assembly line in 1913, no doubt would be astonished to learn that today 39 percent of all robots deployed in America have replaced humans on automotive production lines.

The question, of course, in Cayman is how artificial intelligence (more so than robotics) is likely to impact our leading industries, mainly the financial sector, which is already witnessing their operations being transformed by an amalgam of algorithms and systems that analyze “big data,” assess risk and make forecasts – once the domain of quick-thinking humans with sharp eyes and reliable “guts.”

That is why we were somewhat relieved to read that experts aren’t predicting a “rise of the machines” in finance anytime soon. In a Bloomberg article published in the Cayman Islands Journal (a sister publication to the Compass), managers of several major hedge funds clearly outlined the limitations of new technologies, which, they say, are valuable in augmenting the work of human analysts – not replacing it.

For years, banks and money managers have deployed technological tools to analyze data, spot anomalies and identify trends and opportunities. But the trend has accelerated as algorithms have grown more sophisticated and with advancements in machine-learning resulting in systems that can adapt – using what they have “learned” to fine-tune results and make predictions about what might happen in the future.

Even so, as the hedge fund Winton wrote in a recent letter to clients, “The notion that human involvement in investment management should, or even could, be fully automated is wide of the mark.” This is particularly noteworthy because Winton’s founder, David Harding, built his firm (which today manages $30 billion in assets) on the foundation of the scientific method and a data-centric approach.

Even a system that “learns” is far from perfect – as anyone who has used Siri or Google Translate can attest to. A computer program may be able to process large amounts of data almost instantaneously, but it still takes a sharp-witted human at the helm to make insightful decisions about what to do with the data that’s been crunched. Frankly, while some see “big data” as the inevitable future, a sizable number of contrarians, buoyed the boondoggles of predicting recent elections, predict “big data” is, in fact, a trendy “big dud.”

What is clear among all this murkiness is that the best way to ensure a bright future for Cayman’s young people is to make sure each and every one of them has access to a high-quality education. By the time they reach working age, there may not be many job opportunities for phone answerers, paper shufflers or inventory arrangers. Almost certainly, it will be the low-skilled jobs that will disappear first.

Our job today is to educate our young people so they can grow up prepared to engage in meaningful, valuable – and, most importantly, available – work.

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