AI is not the only answer – Alexa Stop Ep11 ft. Andy Budd

Alexa Stop podcast

The latest episode of Alexa Stop features Andy Budd, Co-founder and CEO of Clearleft. Aside from sharing with you that I quite fancy a trip to the Norwegian Fjords following this episode, I also picked up a few interesting snippets on the recent chip security scare, and the relentless march of AI and automation into our working lives.

Raising the spectre of a security meltdown

A flaw in Intel* chips (dated back to the mid 1990s) was discovered by four different groups of independent security researchers, some 20 years after production. But why now?

Meltdown breaks the most fundamental isolation between user applications and the operating system. This attack allows a program to access the memory, and thus also the secrets, of other programs and the operating system.”

Spectre breaks the isolation between different applications. It allows an attacker to trick error-free programs, which follow best practices, into leaking their secrets. In fact, the safety checks of said best practices actually increase the attack surface and may make applications more susceptible to Spectre”

*Spectre actually works across ARM and AMD chips too.

Apparently these vulnerabilities exist because performance and speed of chips have been prioritised by chip makers, at the expense of security. They could allow, for example, your browser to give away your search history, passwords, personal photos and messages.

Rob points out that this is a real problem for cloud hosting and servers due to the nature of multi tenancy and consuming services on a shared basis. This caused massive disruption for major services that people rely on from the likes of Google and Amazon, for example. However, they have all assured users that action has been taken to mitigate the risks.

AI: from science fiction to science fact

“The most recent project is always the one you fall in love with. If you’re a designer, one of your goals is to be constantly improving.” – Andy Budd

Andy is passionate about how design is often overlooked. People are so busy and hell-bent on looking for advantages through marketing and technology, but we’re now in a situation where that isn’t always bringing in new revenue. He believes design is the next area for a competitive advantage and enjoys helping organisations realise that.

There is a huge amount of investment in AI, so it’s only going to become a more prominent part of our future. However, It’s still being driven by technologists, chip manufacturers, AI researchers and tech companies. Designers and other storytellers haven’t really been involved. Andy thinks people like himself, and other designers and storytellers, are the ones that take new technologies and socialise them. They take the ideas and make them palatable – think back to the way Alexa is integrating voice search into our lives in the CES special episode.

This inspired Andy to take a group of friends and colleagues to the Norwegian Fjords for a three day retreat, to try to inject some diversity of thought into discussions on the future of AI.

Andy has some pretty amazing friends… graphic novelists, science fiction authors, researchers, ethicists, cyborg anthropologists, specialists in robots, people working in big tech companies like Google, artists and hackers. From thinking about the effects the fourth industrial revolution will have on employment, to how we are baking our cognitive biases into technology, they all came together to understand and share their knowledge, and found common ground in their desire to humanise technology technology.

They came up with four main perspectives for action:

  • Mainstream understanding of AI is haphazard;
  • We don’t know the shape of what’s to come;
  • Wild ideas are valuable right now;
  • AI is not the only answer.

You can read more about the discussions and their conclusions at The Juvet Agenda.

Measuring progress: 50 years from when?

When we think back to horse and carts, air balloons and carrier pigeons, we have made a giant leap where technology is concerned. But changes in the last 20 years have been less visually impactful. We still have mobile phones, they just look a little more sexy. The light bulb and electricity are still around, we’ve just started connecting them to WiFi. And our cars still have four wheels and are controlled by humans. However, if we were to start our 50 years of change from the millennium, would we see a similar visual jump as 100 years ago? Put in the context of a single human lifetime, these changes will only seem incremental to us.

And we’re back to ‘robots are going to take all of our jobs’…

I recently saw a news article with a headline along the lines of ‘900,000 London jobs will be taken by automation’. Even though the story itself had a positive sentiment, with an employee explaining how he had been re-trained for a position higher up the ladder, using fear-mongering headlines can only inspire a climate of negativity.

Andy believes it’s inconceivable that in 50 years time we won’t be suffering from large scale unemployment (especially in certain industries or areas of job). But, looking on the bright side, technology can make us safer in certain classes of job. For example, why would you want to risk people getting ill, or threatened by injury through fatigue?

Lights out on the traditional factory

The idea of lights-off manufacturing was one that now seems so obvious in line with a move towards automation. If humans are not required to perform a task, it is a fair certainty that light will not be required either. We’re talking about jobs that are usually not pleasant to do, so what’s the problem in removing them? Obviously those who own these jobs will not be in demand, and it’s unlikely many of these individuals will be able to retrain (nor be given the opportunity).

This has been going on for generations. The industrial revolution saw more and more of our physical traits replaced by something that made our lives (or tasks) easier. And this has transitioned across to our personal lives, where once you needed human power to wash your clothes, we now have washing machines. However, in the past they have been far more labour intensive tasks, whereas now, tasks which rely on dexterity, endurance, memory and cognition, are increasingly being taken away by other tools. The machines are even making up ground in the field of creativity.

The concern comes when we are at a point where there are no more (purely) human abilities that we can fall back on; nothing that a robot wouldn’t be able to do (better). Emotion is an area you would believe would remain for humans only, but there are robots that can sense human emotion.

As these technologies progress, we need to make sensible smart decisions with how we use these tools, otherwise we may find ourselves with masses of underemployment. Do we have a robot that benefits and is optimised for shareholder value, or one that will it benefit the whole of humanity? Leading with design, and a wide range of human input (not just tech guys) is really important.

It’s reassuring to know that there are minds out there that still think about things in a way that is centred around humanity and our best interests. Andy wrapped things up by questioning technological panaceas and suggesting that some answers actually lie in a human solution. Don’t always rely on tech to solve the answers, think your way out of a problem, rather than buying your way out.


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