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Long before coronavirus appeared and shattered our pre-existing “normal,” the future of work was a widely discussed and debated topic. We’ve watched automation slowly but surely expand its capabilities and take over more jobs, and we’ve wondered what artificial intelligence will eventually be capable of.
The pandemic swiftly turned the working world on its head, putting millions of people out of a job and forcing millions more to work remotely. But essential questions remain largely unchanged: we still want to make sure we’re not replaced, we want to add value, and we want an equitable society where different types of work are valued fairly.
To address these issues—as well as how the pandemic has impacted them—this week Singularity University held a digital summit on the future of work. Forty-three speakers from multiple backgrounds, countries, and sectors of the economy shared their expertise on everything from work in developing markets to why we shouldn’t want to go back to the old normal.
Gary Bolles, SU’s chair for the Future of Work, kicked off the discussion with his thoughts on a future of work that’s human-centric, including why it matters and how to build it.
What Is Work?
“Work” seems like a straightforward concept to define, but since it’s constantly shifting shape over time, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. Bolles defined work, very basically, as human skills applied to problems.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a dirty floor or a complex market entry strategy or a major challenge in the world,” he said. “We as humans create value by applying our skills to solve problems in the world.” You can think of the problems that need solving as the demand and human skills as the supply, and the two are in constant oscillation, including, every few decades or centuries, a massive shift.
We’re in the midst of one of those shifts right now (and we already were, long before the pandemic). Skills that have long been in demand are declining. The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Future of Jobs report listed things like manual dexterity, management of financial and material resources, and quality control and safety awareness as declining skills. Meanwhile, skills the next generation will need include analytical thinking and innovation, emotional intelligence, creativity, and systems analysis.
Along Came a Pandemic
With the outbreak of coronavirus and its spread around the world, the demand side of work shrunk; all the problems that needed solving gave way to the much bigger, more immediate problem of keeping people alive. But as a result, tens of millions of people around the world are out of work—and those are just the ones that are being counted, and they’re a fraction of the true total. There are additional millions in seasonal or gig jobs or who work in informal economies now without work, too.
“This is our opportunity to focus,” Bolles said. “How do we help people re-engage with work? And make it better work, a better economy, and a better set of design heuristics for a world that we all want?”
Bolles posed five key questions—some spurred by impact of the pandemic—on which future of work conversations should focus to make sure it’s a human-centric future.
1. What does an inclusive world of work look like? Rather than seeing our current systems of work as immutable, we need to actually understand those systems and how we want to change them.
2. How can we increase the value of human work? We know that robots and software are going to be fine in the future—but for humans to be fine, we need to design for that very intentionally.
3. How can entrepreneurship help create a better world of work? In many economies the new value that’s created often comes from younger companies; how do we nurture entrepreneurship?
4. What will the intersection of workplace and geography look like? A large percentage of the global workforce is now working from home; what could some of the outcomes of that be? How does gig work fit in?
5. How can we ensure a healthy evolution of work and life? The health and the protection of those at risk is why we shut down our economies, but we need to find a balance that allows people to work while keeping them safe.
Problem-Solving Doesn’t End
The end result these questions are driving towards, and our overarching goal, is maximizing human potential. “If we come up with ways we can continue to do that, we’ll have a much more beneficial future of work,” Bolles said. “We should all be talking about where we can have an impact.”
One small silver lining? We had plenty of problems to solve in the world before ever hearing about coronavirus, and now we have even more. Is the pace of automation accelerating due to the virus? Yes. Are companies finding more ways to automate their processes in order to keep people from getting sick? They are.
But we have a slew of new problems on our hands, and we’re not going to stop needing human skills to solve them (not to mention the new problems that will surely emerge as second- and third-order effects of the shutdowns). If Bolles’ definition of work holds up, we’ve got ours cut out for us.
In an article from April titled The Great Reset, Bolles outlined three phases of the unemployment slump (we’re currently still in the first phase) and what we should be doing to minimize the damage. “The evolution of work is not about what will happen 10 to 20 years from now,” he said. “It’s about what we could be doing differently today.”
Watch Bolles’ talk and those of dozens of other experts for more insights into building a human-centric future of work here.
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There is a saying that has emerged among the tech set in recent years: AI is the new electricity. The platitude refers to the disruptive power of artificial intelligence for driving advances in everything from transportation to predicting the weather.
Of course, the computers and data centers that support AI’s complex algorithms are very much dependent on electricity. While that may seem pretty obvious, it may be surprising to learn that AI can be extremely power-hungry, especially when it comes to training the models that enable machines to recognize your face in a photo or for Alexa to understand a voice command.
The scale of the problem is difficult to measure, but there have been some attempts to put hard numbers on the environmental cost.
For instance, one paper published on the open-access repository arXiv claimed that the carbon emissions for training a basic natural language processing (NLP) model—algorithms that process and understand language-based data—are equal to the CO2 produced by the average American lifestyle over two years. A more robust model required the equivalent of about 17 years’ worth of emissions.
The authors noted that about a decade ago, NLP models could do the job on a regular commercial laptop. Today, much more sophisticated AI models use specialized hardware like graphics processing units, or GPUs, a chip technology popularized by Nvidia for gaming that also proved capable of supporting computing tasks for AI.
OpenAI, a nonprofit research organization co-founded by tech prophet and profiteer Elon Musk, said that the computing power “used in the largest AI training runs has been increasing exponentially with a 3.4-month doubling time” since 2012. That’s about the time that GPUs started making their way into AI computing systems.
Getting Smarter About AI Chip Design
While GPUs from Nvidia remain the gold standard in AI hardware today, a number of startups have emerged to challenge the company’s industry dominance. Many are building chipsets designed to work more like the human brain, an area that’s been dubbed neuromorphic computing.
One of the leading companies in this arena is Graphcore, a UK startup that has raised more than $450 million and boasts a valuation of $1.95 billion. The company’s version of the GPU is an IPU, which stands for intelligence processing unit.
To build a computer brain more akin to a human one, the big brains at Graphcore are bypassing the precise but time-consuming number-crunching typical of a conventional microprocessor with one that’s content to get by on less precise arithmetic.
The results are essentially the same, but IPUs get the job done much quicker. Graphcore claimed it was able to train the popular BERT NLP model in just 56 hours, while tripling throughput and reducing latency by 20 percent.
An article in Bloomberg compared the approach to the “human brain shifting from calculating the exact GPS coordinates of a restaurant to just remembering its name and neighborhood.”
Graphcore’s hardware architecture also features more built-in memory processing, boosting efficiency because there’s less need to send as much data back and forth between chips. That’s similar to an approach adopted by a team of researchers in Italy that recently published a paper about a new computing circuit.
The novel circuit uses a device called a memristor that can execute a mathematical function known as a regression in just one operation. The approach attempts to mimic the human brain by processing data directly within the memory.
Daniele Ielmini at Politecnico di Milano, co-author of the Science Advances paper, told Singularity Hub that the main advantage of in-memory computing is the lack of any data movement, which is the main bottleneck of conventional digital computers, as well as the parallel processing of data that enables the intimate interactions among various currents and voltages within the memory array.
Ielmini explained that in-memory computing can have a “tremendous impact on energy efficiency of AI, as it can accelerate very advanced tasks by physical computation within the memory circuit.” He added that such “radical ideas” in hardware design will be needed in order to make a quantum leap in energy efficiency and time.
It’s Not Just a Hardware Problem
The emphasis on designing more efficient chip architecture might suggest that AI’s power hunger is essentially a hardware problem. That’s not the case, Ielmini noted.
“We believe that significant progress could be made by similar breakthroughs at the algorithm and dataset levels,” he said.
He’s not the only one.
One of the key research areas at Qualcomm’s AI research lab is energy efficiency. Max Welling, vice president of Qualcomm Technology R&D division, has written about the need for more power-efficient algorithms. He has gone so far as to suggest that AI algorithms will be measured by the amount of intelligence they provide per joule.
One emerging area being studied, Welling wrote, is the use of Bayesian deep learning for deep neural networks.
It’s all pretty heady stuff and easily the subject of a PhD thesis. The main thing to understand in this context is that Bayesian deep learning is another attempt to mimic how the brain processes information by introducing random values into the neural network. A benefit of Bayesian deep learning is that it compresses and quantifies data in order to reduce the complexity of a neural network. In turn, that reduces the number of “steps” required to recognize a dog as a dog—and the energy required to get the right result.
A team at Oak Ridge National Laboratory has previously demonstrated another way to improve AI energy efficiency by converting deep learning neural networks into what’s called a spiking neural network. The researchers spiked their deep spiking neural network (DSNN) by introducing a stochastic process that adds random values like Bayesian deep learning.
The DSNN actually imitates the way neurons interact with synapses, which send signals between brain cells. Individual “spikes” in the network indicate where to perform computations, lowering energy consumption because it disregards unnecessary computations.
The system is being used by cancer researchers to scan millions of clinical reports to unearth insights on causes and treatments of the disease.
Helping battle cancer is only one of many rewards we may reap from artificial intelligence in the future, as long as the benefits of those algorithms outweigh the costs of using them.
“Making AI more energy-efficient is an overarching objective that spans the fields of algorithms, systems, architecture, circuits, and devices,” Ielmini said.
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