Technical myths shouldn't stop progress

You can't stop progress...but you can control it

Tom Allen
clock • 3 min read
Blocking the tide has historically not worked out well
Image:

Blocking the tide has historically not worked out well

The pull towards AI seems as inevitable as the tide, but like a tsunami could mean chaos and destruction. Avoiding that outcome requires guiding, not blocking.

It's 2023, and AI is everywhere. You simply cannot work in tech and have failed to encounter a reference to the technology this year.

Some people insist AI will take our jobs; others say it will make them more exciting. Speaking at last week's Women in Tech Festival, Dr Patricia Gestoso tried to add more nuance to the question.

She began by dismissing some myths that are pushed about AI. First up: You can't stop progress.

Tech executives like to play this line when threatened with regulation. We won't cure cancer, land on Mars or reach net zero if we continue to put controls on technology.

"But actually, is that true, that we cannot have it all? Let's look at a very ancient technology: fire. We learned about fire about 300,000 years ago. Seven thousand years ago, we decided that we wouldn't let fire do whatever it wanted to… So, you know, we are happy to have fire in an oven and cook a pizza, but if it goes to the curtains or the floor, we give ourselves permission to put it out. We can do the same with AI."

Myths two and three were about women, specifically: dispelling notions that AI will have an outsize effect on women's jobs (according to separate reports by Pew Research and other commissioned by the UK government, the different impact felt by men and women will be between four and six percent), and that women don't like STEM careers.

"Women were the original programmers. We were at Bletchley Park, we were at the ENIAC, we were at NASA… What really pushed women out of technology was patriarchy."

It's about safety, stupid

That's not to say AI is blameless for recent impacts on the job market; or more accurately, its creators aren't. Big promises are thrown around about the technology, and Gestoso dismantled each one.

One of the main attractions is speed, and it's true that we can work faster using AI; but that often hides unethical practices. For example, Uber is using algorithms to force drivers to work longer hours and direct them to less lucrative locations - where Uber wants them to work.

Related to speed is the promise of productivity. Of course, if we're working faster then our outputs should be higher; and according to the ONS, the UK's productivity today is up about 30% compared to 1999. That, however, is a relatively small increase compared to other EU countries, or North America.

"Why is that? Because actually, when you look into the data, it tells us that we as a country are less productive because of the sectors the UK has decided to prioritise; and because we have one of the lowest investments in R&D."

Reframing the relationship

It's no small task to change our reliance on artificial intelligence, but Gestoso wasn't arguing to ditch the technology all together. Rather, it's about reframing our relationship with AI.

"People talk about working for or with AI. We should reframe it as AI working for us. We provide context for the algorithms, and we have the final say."

An example she gave was asking your favourite chatbot to create multiple outputs (report summaries, email templates, etc) instead of just one, and then picking and choosing from those.

Anyone interested should also make sure to work together - collective action being difficult to ignore - and look for industries that haven't yet invested heavily in AI but are ripe for disruption: for example, healthcare.

"We make the decisions," said Gestoso. "This is how we regain power."

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