“To the extent that we are seeing the beginning of a battle between Artificial Intelligence and humanity, I am 100% loyal to people.” Those are the words of Sebastian Thrun, the former Google executive who helped launch self-driving cars, among other Google “moonshot” projects, in the latest issue of The Economist. It’s an extraordinary statement, not due to subject of his loyalty—indeed, it would be much more newsworthy to declare allegiance to the other side—but because we are now at a time where such a statement could be considered necessary. Thrun is someone who knows where we are at in terms of AI replacing human labor, and while he might be professionally prone toward technological optimism, it is hard to say he is wrong.
The revolution can be mustered by 1,000 data points. Think of Frank Sobotka in The Wire watching with angry panic a video about robots replacing human workers in shipping yards. Look at Daimler’s new line of self-driving long-haul trucks. Read articles about how AI is learning to replicate journalism. Walk past a newsstand and see Derek Fisher’s Atlantic cover story on “The End of Work.” There is a rising and inchoate panic about this, as people are beginning to seriously wonder what will happen to their livelihoods. I think there is a counterweight though, and interestingly enough, it is born of technology. It starts with companies like Sunnyvale’s Good Technology, and focuses on the BYOD movement that is changing work in a positive way.
Good Technology, BlackBerry, and Finding a Better BYOD
Good Technology is a Sunnyvale-based company that was in the news this week after being acquired by BlackBerry for a pretty cool $425 million, cash. The tech press was excited about this, because it is the latest in a string of acquisitions for the once-floundering and oft-mocked BlackBerry, who look to make themselves a major mobile player again.
BlackBerry found itself severely damaged by the rise of smartphones because it was all work and no play. After all, if you could surf the web and jump on Facebook and watch movies from your phone, why would you want to deal with a BlackBerry, which was basically a really smart PDA. The company drifted for years after 2007, and I think if you were to ask people on the street, a majority of them would be surprised that it was still around.
It seems that recently BlackBerry has re-found its focus, and that is to focus on what it was always known for: being a perfect companion for work. The purchase of Good Technology solidified this. Good Technology is a Bay Area company that focuses on BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), a relatively recent workplace development. BYOD is the idea that instead of companies having a huge computer infrastructure, they could rely on employees to work on the devices that they already use every day—smartphones, tablets, and laptops. The employees would own their devices, and so they would already know how to use them, could take them anywhere, and be more productive while saving the company money.
There have always been worries about this idea, mostly in terms of security and risk. Personal devices are much more prone to being hacked, since they are on a million sites, and frankly more prone to just being dropped or left in an Uber. Working with the right tech partner can help reduce BYOD risks, but some companies are still nervous.
That’s where Good Technology comes in. Good Technology is known for developing software that helps corporations and the government manage their mobile workplace needs. It helps to create a system where these devices can be kept safe and operating quickly. The software helps to manage workplace flow, collaboration, management, and security. It works to create a real virtual office, one that is secure, that moves fast, and that isn’t interfered with. The new line of BlackBerry Android phones, the Venice (still in production stages), could incorporate this technology to be the most work-friendly line of mobile phones yet. It is the difference between being able to do work on your phone, and having your phone be your workplace.
Beating Robots At Their Own Game
So how does this help us in the “battle between AI and humanity”? It’s pretty simple: AI mimics human intelligence at a much faster speed. That’s its strength. Through complex enough algorithms, it can even approximate crude imagination. But for all that, it is still less agile than the human mind, and in terms of work, better BYOD helps us level the playing field. Think of all the time wasted commuting, getting settled, dealing with complicated layers of security, and any other tech woes. That slows us down.
With better BYOD, the power of actual—not virtual—cognitive skills can be partnered with the much higher rates of productivity, matching and exceeding AI. Any money saved by automating has to be balanced by losing the human gift for creative thinking and real-world problem solving, and having BYOD that is flexible and secure helps us to demonstrate those talents. When humans can work in the virtual world, hiring virtual humans suddenly makes a lot less sense.
Of course, that also sounds kind of grim: if we can work as tirelessly as automatons, we’ll be able to eat. I don’t think it has to be like that, though. I think as both kinds of technology progress, artificial intelligence and the tech that harnesses and unleashes real intelligence, our economy will shift in fundamental ways that reduce the time we need to work without lowering productivity, and the reward system will shift to recognize that.
While I am not a techno-Candide, I think we’re in a fascinating place, and are just at the beginning of what can be a very positive hinge. The way that our BYOD is progressing I think will stave off the understandable desire to mindlessly embrace the shiniest new thing, and I think that human ingenuity will always be recognized, needed, and rewarded. We may be moving to where we’ll need less work, without suffering. So don’t worry about declaring your allegiance just yet. As has always been the case with technology, dystopian writers aside, humans are actually in control.