Opinion: As the Fourth Industrial Revolution rages on, we have an obligation to consider social impacts

All of us in the technology community to deeply consider all angles of smart solutions before we implement them, writes Alessio Bagnaresi, sales leader, data and artificial intelligence at Microsoft
Opinion: As the Fourth Industrial Revolution rages on, we have an obligation to consider social impacts
By Alessio Bagnaresi
Sun 15 Jul 2018 03:09 PM

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has swept the globe, and governments and companies here in the GCC have become leaders in pushing the technological envelope to make societies safer, more engaged and more prosperous.

But Fourth Industrial Revolution has undeniably brought seismic change, fusing the physical world with the digital like never before.

The Internet of Things allows autonomous thought in everything from the simplest household appliance to the advanced machinery of heavy industry. And leaps forward in robotics and machine learning herald a new era of non-human labour in society’s most monotonous and hazardous fields of endeavour.

We know from the experience gained from its predecessors that the Fourth Industrial Revolution cannot be stopped.

Digital transformation and automation are already engaging customers, empowering employees, optimising operations and invigorating business models.

But while we may point to 'revolutions' - one through three - to assure ourselves that there will be a net gain in jobs, tech companies and governments need to work together to make sure that is the case.

“We need to take accountability for the AI we create. I think a lot about this. With any new technology we, as a society, have to be clear-eyed on both sides of it – the opportunities for this technology to have a profound impact on our daily lives and do good, and at the same time be very mindful of unintended consequences.”

These are the words of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. This is, I feel, a call for all of us in the technology community to deeply consider all angles of smart solutions before we implement them.

I, and many others, share a guarded optimism about our smart future. There are applications for smart technology that would deliver an unambiguous net benefit.

“Seeing AI”, for example, is a free app that sees the world on behalf of vision-impaired users, using AI to describe people, text and objects. It reads even hand-written text, using a mobile device’s camera and advanced computer-vision technology.

It describes products by scanning their barcodes, and even recognises the faces and emotions of people around you.

CRISPR is a nano-sized sewing kit that can be designed to cut and alter DNA at a specific point in a specific gene. Its microscopic accuracy could lead to massive leaps forward in our ability to modify cells to combat cancer or produce high-yield, drought-tolerant crops.

Other solutions that combine machine learning and computer vision could be developed to tell the difference between cancerous and healthy tissue, allowing oncologists to vastly improve radiotherapy treatment.

If we consider agriculture, we are confronted with the thorny issue that, by 2050, we will require greater crop yields from less arable land, and with lower environmental impact.

Smart farming will be indispensable in pursuing these ends. Also, by 2040, our demand for fresh water is expected to drastically outstrip supply. AI can help with the vital conservation of fresh-water sources.

Then there is the alarming rate of extinction of our planet’s fauna. AI systems will allow more rapid detection and more efficient monitoring of biodiversity, leading to better preservation of wildlife. And as increasingly volatile climates threaten health, infrastructure, and ecosystems, AI can provide more accurate climate predictions to help reduce these impacts.

In the UAE, many private and public organisations have taken steps to integrate AI into their technology stack to provide enhanced experiences for customers and citizens.

Jumeirah Group and Majid Al Futtaim now use advanced business intelligence to understand consumers’ needs and serve them better. And the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority has introduced Rammas, an autonomous, multi-language, multichannel, chatbot that can engage with customers on a range of issues. The bot reduces workloads on human employees, who are then able to use that time to tackle more complex queries.

But for each of these net-benefit solutions, we will find examples of AI “getting it wrong” and delivering net burdens, net inconvenience, or even net misery. And so, we return to Satya Nadella, who said: “I believe in a world that will have an abundance of artificial intelligence, but what will be scarce is real intelligence and human qualities, like empathy.”

I would like to believe we can trust companies to deliver that empathy, but I think we all can agree that the role of arbiter should fall to governments. At the WEF’s recent Davos conference, many global experts and world leaders expressed concerns that as the Fourth Industrial Revolution exterminated jobs, the skillsets of current school-leavers were not attuned to the digital age.

That is why Microsoft has set up several global initiatives to capture the potential of AI, nurture skillsets in young people interested in the field, and instil a sense of responsibility in those practitioners as they embark on their AI careers. We provide an AI Summer Camp as part of our participation in Dubai’s One Million Arab Coders initiative and our new Microsoft Professional Programme for Artificial Intelligence includes modules that encourage students to apply ethical and legal frameworks to real-world scenarios.

Only governments are equipped to shake up education, preparing for another claim raised at Davos: that two thirds of children who are just now starting school will end up doing jobs that don’t exist yet. In our goal to ensure that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will benefit everyone, this is surely good news.

But the real challenge is not only to enact legislation that caters for the next generation of school-leavers, but also to care for those made redundant by automation. Overcome that challenge, and we fulfil our responsibility – to ensure our smart future shines into every corner of our world.

Alessio Bagnaresi is solution sales leader, data and artificial intelligence, Microsoft

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