It’s a pretty scary thought for a student. You spend 3 or 4 years of your life, study for yonks (or, more likely, cram all your work into those golden two hours at 10pm the night the assessment is due), and spend god knows how much money on a degree. Then some data scientist tells you AI can do your job quicker, better and cheaper than you can.

Sorry accountants, looks like……………..

Author can’t be bothered to think of a good metaphor to finish the sentence.

Searches for accountant jokes on Google.

They’re all terrible.

Wishes he had a sense of humour

Credit: Mike Mackenzie

But is it really all doom and gloom? Well, according to the experts, no. But also yes.

Emeritus Professor David Peets from Griffith University thinks the problem is as much with the companies running the show as the technology itself. 

“Normally, what happens is you have some sort of app on your phones, like Uber or Lyft, and that means the relationship is mediated. So when you call some dude up and he comes around and takes you for a taxi ride, the thing you’ve got to remember is that everyone under these ‘platforms’ is some sort of a contract worker.”

Concerns around contract work have dogged young Australians for decades, who represent almost half the contract workforce, according to the most recent census. Unionisation across the country is festering at 15%. And this means the moment is ripe for ‘the platforms’ to sink their greasy fingers into student’s back pockets.

The child represents your back pocket. The face represents Gerry Harvey. Credit: Christopher Dombres

Not that it’s all bad news, though; a casualisation of the workforce can make it easier for students to find jobs that have flexible work hours, better pay and are dispensable on graduation. But this type of work, even if it doesn’t affect us, can be challenging for people who haven’t had the opportunities uni students have.

There’s been horror stories coming out of the US, about workers being permanently injured because of the break-neck speed the systems, and the robots they share the warehouse floor with, demand. Even in  Australia, workers have spoken out anonymously, describing the unrealistic and even dangerous pace they’re required to work at.

In the space of self-driving vehicles, even the CEO of Toyota thinks there’s been “overconfidence” in the capabilities of AI. One of their autonomous buses ran over a Paralympian at the games in Tokyo. Apparently, the bus thought he would stop crossing the road when he saw the bus coming, despite the 30-year old athlete being blind.

Driverless buses at the Tokyo Olympic Village. Credit: NBC Today

Despite this, some experts are still confident the technology can be used for good. Dr Penny Williams works at Centre for Robotics at the Queensland University of Technology. She believes a new style of machine, called ‘collaborative robots’, will allow a greater diversity of workers in industries like advanced manufacturing.

She says the machines are built to prioritise being easy to interact with for humans. “We’re looking at how collaborative robotics can make the workplace safer, and also provide opportunities for some workers to have greater longevity in the workplace. You might not need to have the physical skills you once did in advanced manufacturing.”

Technology is shaping the way we’re all working, exacerbated, of course, by our increased reliance on it during the COVID  pandemic. But unprecedented investment in what experts are classing the ‘second-generation of Artificial Intelligence’, is leaving some concerned.

The main innovation here is what is called ‘unsupervised learning’. At the moment, every AI, from Alexa to Home Assistant, from Deep Blue to Facebook’s Algorithm, is fed massive amounts of data. However, in true Year 9 maths fashion, it’s also given the answers, because the real learning is how we get to the answer, isn’t it? Mrs Spry……

The process of producing all these predetermined data sets is incredibly time-consuming. But more importantly, these models can only be very narrow in what they can teach. Siri won’t beat you in a game of chess, and Google’s algorithms can’t develop cures to coronavirus.

These new AI’s will be able to take information as random as tax reports, Facebook posts and Pinterest profiles. They’ll be able to not only learn from data sets but be able to teach themselves how to understand new types of data. That’s where the money is going.

The European Union has, within the last few months, been the first worldwide to create a strategy to regulate AI. Australia, too, is investing heavily. But in a global race to be at the forefront of technology, how likely is it that some of us will be left behind?