Last week, I wrote about the development of co-working innovation spaces in South Africa as a strategy to encourage entrepreneurship.
Innovation is seen as a key driver of job creation at a time when most African countries are facing a youth unemployment crisis.
Research in computing, however, is tilting towards artificial intelligence (AI) that may be counterproductive to employment creation.
Computing is slowly moving away from using elaborate instructions (codes) to execute functions to leveraging data and learning through algorithms that improve with experience to perform more complex activities that mimic human intelligence.
There is growing fear that AI will in future eliminate most of the jobs that exist today.
Google’s Africa Internet Academy, which invited us to South Africa, is in the midst of emerging innovations. They used the occasion to showcase the next wave of innovations.
What was clear from what we saw is that new AI products are on the way and about to disrupt the world once more.
AI, sometimes known as machine learning or deep learning, is a process whereby computers are taught using algorithm to perform functions that have in the past been done by human beings. It has widespread applications, including speech recognition.
This field of study has been around for some time. In 1959, Arthur Samuel described machine learning as something that “gives computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed.”
Google and its competitors Amazon have leveraged AI to bring to the market smart products. One of the products on display was Google Home, which is capable of holding a conversation with a human being.
It will effectively become your assistant at home. It is capable of reminding you of the tasks that you haven’t undertaken as you leave the house as well as things you ought to do during the day.
If you are fond of leaving gas burners on, it will remind you to check them before you leave.
The one product that I liked and in my view is overdue was the Google Translate app, which can translate more than 100 languages as you talk, write or read.
It is now possible to read a French menu even though you cannot read or speak French.
Google’s competitors are also testing a new mind boggling product - Amazon Go - that enables customers to swipe their mobile identifier as they walk into a grocery store, pick up what they want and just walk out.
Using machine learning, sensors and artificial intelligence, the store’s cloud computing test site in Seattle will track the items customers pick and put them into a virtual cart from where an app will automatically debit the customer’s credit card.
Already, the product is facing criticism that it aims to make more than 3.5 million cashier jobs in the US redundant.
In Philadelphia, Uber is using almost similar technology as Amazon to test driverless cars in their taxi hailing services. This too will put several drivers out of employment.
There are also attempts to automate legal work. Several legal tasks have been automated using AI. For example, intelligent search systems outperform human beings and are by far more precise.
A recent Deloitte report predicts that more than 100,000 legal roles will become automated in the next 20 years.
There is no logical justification of not automating for example, mortgage contracts in Kenya as they are fairly standard. There is no doubt that people or even governments will not fight automation. The research community is aware of this.
A long-term study commissioned at Stanford University and titled ‘‘Artificial Intelligence and Life in 2030’’ says: “AI will likely replace tasks rather than jobs in the near term, and will also create new kinds of jobs.
But the new jobs that will emerge are harder to imagine in advance than the existing jobs that will likely be lost.
Changes in employment usually happen gradually, often without a sharp transition, a trend likely to continue as AI slowly moves into the workplace. A spectrum of effects will emerge, ranging from small amounts of replacement or augmentation to complete replacement.”
AI is making things smarter and with algorithms it keeps on improving with experience. Clearly even as we protest that it is taking jobs from human beings, it has a wide range of applications that human beings may never be effective in doing.
However, we must closely monitor its development in order to address legal and ethical concerns that will certainly come up. There is reason to begin start thinking about the role of human beings in the days to come.
The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.