Harnessing the potential of the rise of the machines

3 June 2019

Much has been written about the disruptive effect of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. The fears range from widespread job losses on the sensible side of the scale to nothing short of a “Skynet” state of affairs with a tip of the cap to the main protagonist in the Terminator movies, leading to the inevitable elimination of humankind at the behest of our robot masters. Computer scientist Roman Yampolskiy together with hacktivist and entrepreneur Federico Pistono came up with a set of worst-case scenarios the world could potentially experience in the face of a malevolent AI (MAI). Societal impacts such as technological unemployment, a MAI controlled Coups d’état (through acts such as dissemination of false information and the staging of assassinations – a lot easier to accomplish with access to global systems of communication, internet and social media, even staging multiple coups in multiple countries), legislative effects (the more legislative power becomes centralised, with influence in the hands of a few, the easier it is for a MAI to seek control of the world), and the one a lot of people shudder over the most, military impacts (a lot can be written on this, and it is the most unlikely of the scenarios sketched out, but all that needs to be said on this is that a vast number of the world’s nuclear warheads are stored in ageing, underfunded facilities without the proper safety standards). Interestingly this research was partly bankrolled by Elon Musk, one of the leading AI engineers in the world when it comes to self-driving cars, but at the same time one of the more vociferous opponents of unrestricted AI use, a stance shared by the late Stephen Hawking. Microsoft Research director Eric Horvitz is concerned that “we could one day lose control of AI systems via the rise of superintelligences that do not act in accordance with human wishes – and that such powerful systems would threaten humanity. Are such dystopic outcomes possible? If so, how might these situations arise? …What kind of investments in research should be made to better understand and to address the possibility of the rise of a dangerous superintelligence or the occurrence of an “intelligence explosion”?”.

Of course these are worst case scenarios, laced with some paranoia, sprinkled with a dash of fearmongering and somewhat bordering on the realms of science fiction, going some way to explaining why it is the default position of a lot of people who know nothing about AI and robotics. Every risk manager is clamouring to include AI related risks in their risk registers for fear of falling behind the curve, and most certainly rightly so. In fact if your risk register does not contain any AI-related risks, then you’re either naïve, or just downright ignorant. So, if you have AI risks on your risk register, congratulations. But if you’re only focusing on the downside of the risk, you’re not even half way there. In my humble opinion, and with a disclaimer of being no expert in artificial intelligence, the upside far outweighs the downside. Close to home for us here in South Africa is the fight against rhino poaching (excuse my brief rant but having an anti-rhino poaching sticker on the back of your car, or a nice bright red rhino horn as a hood ornament does not qualify you as a fighter against poaching unless you’re making a regular contribution to the fight). The South African government has invested in systems to help identify and eliminate the networks that connect illegal guns, poachers and the buyers of the product. Along with the use of drones for monitoring reserves for intruders, data analytics tools are used to map out the poaching network through analytical clustering and segmentation algorithms. This is a great example of big data being harnessed through the use of AI machine learning to tell you the real story once you start joining the individual pieces together. Healthcare stands to change fundamentally through the use of AI and robotics. As most risk managers are aware, decision making is thought to be considerably better when a large amount of data is used to produce models of future scenarios, and in healthcare there is an absolute plethora of data. Similarly in the marketing space where the number of potential datasets is almost endless. With just about every buying decision we make, from the researching of the item, right through to the payment method used being meticulously recorded and stored, a marketing AI could potentially make far better brand decisions than any human being could. John Osborne, the Co-Founder and CTO of Crayon, a fascinating AI start-up already making waves in the marketing field said “Marketing is about getting the right products and services in front of the right prospects at the right time, so there are endless opportunities to apply AI in new and creative ways”. This view is applicable across any organization that deals with consumers and probably in one way or another to every corporate or public entity. One of the industries that seems primed to be hit hard and early by the adoption of AI is the world of call centres. And yes, there will be many corporations that will want to eliminate human employees in their call centre interactions. However, we should not discount the empathy slant that a human interaction brings through the application of emotional intelligence (AI is still light years away from being able to reproduce and not just mimic emotions). Picture a call centre staffed by employees with a high EQ, supplemented by an AI system that feeds them with relevant information while on a call with a customer. These humans can then offer tailored advice through the guidance of their AI “supervisor”. And South Africa, through our wide-ranging diversity and a cultural diaspora that leads to daily interactions with people from so many walks of life, as well as a still fairly competitively priced labour market stands poised to take advantage of the need for a more emotional customer interaction.

Many of the doomsayers focus on the impact of AI as a replacing technology, but in a lot of cases, AI can be viewed as an enabling technology, one that allows employees to be more productive in the work that they already perform. These enabling technologies have the potential to create more opportunities for employment such as the rhino poaching methodology mentioned earlier. Someone has to operate and monitor the drone, and several people would be needed to assist in evaluating, probing and presenting the results coming out of the data analysis. The use of AI in this example increases the number of humans interacting with the process and offers valuable growth in quantity and quality of skills these human operators have. In the Accenture Report titled “Artificial Intelligence is the future of growth”, three channels of AI led growth were identified namely intelligent automation (AI powered automation automates complex physical tasks that require adaptability and agility), labour and capital augmentation (existing labour and capital can be used much more effectively as AI enables workers to focus on what they do best – imagine, create and innovate) and innovation diffusion (AI has the ability to propel innovation as it diffuses through the economy). We are faced with a global challenge of shrinking economic growth, a malaise which cuts across most nations, regardless of their first or third world status. There has been a marked decline in the ability of traditional levers of production – capital investment and labour to propel economic growth. AI, as an emerging lever of production, has the potential to introduce whole new sources of economic growth. Accenture’s research into the impact of AI on 12 developed economies reveals that AI could double annual economic growth rates by 2035 by changing the nature of work and creating a new relationship between human and machine. Is there any reason this cannot have a profound impact on under-developed nations as well?

Kenya is emerging as an African leader when it comes to embracing new technology, and using it to leverage economic growth and alleviating poverty. In 2018 the Kenyan government created a Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence task force whose goal is to provide the government with recommendations on how to harness emerging technologies, specifically, but not limited to the fields of public service delivery, cybersecurity, financial inclusion and election processes. They have also embraced block chain technology in their education system, and this is already starting to reap rewards. Further benefits of AI can be found in the enhancement of automation processes, greatly improved disaster response, eradication of human error, eliminating human beings from tasks that are monotonous or dangerous, and a renewed focus on human creativity that has the ability to unlock our true potential as a species.

So yes, be aware of the pitfalls of AI and robotics. Make sure you are prepared for the fourth industrial revolution, the rise of the machine and the chaos that it has the potential to bring. But don’t do so with a fearful mind set. Make sure that your risk management processes embrace the benefits of AI and robotics, and that you future proof your organization, and lay a platform of readiness to take advantage of the abundant upside of these disruptive technologies.


“Artificial Intelligence is likely to be either the best or worst thing to happen to humanity”

Stephen Hawking



Author – Paul van der Struys

June 2019



Federico Pistono and Roman V. Yampolskiy – Unethical research: How to create a malevolent artificial intelligence

Accenture Research – Artificial Intelligence is the future of growth

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