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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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Creativity is a trait that makes humans unique from other species. We alone have the ability to make music and art that speak to our experiences or illuminate truths about our world. But suddenly, humans’ artistic abilities have some competition—and from a decidedly non-human source.
Over the last couple years there have been some remarkable examples of art produced by deep learning algorithms. They have challenged the notion of an elusive definition of creativity and put into perspective how professionals can use artificial intelligence to enhance their abilities and produce beyond the known boundaries.
But when creativity is the result of code written by a programmer, using a format given by a software engineer, featuring private and public datasets, how do we assign ownership of AI-generated content, and particularly that of artwork? McKinsey estimates AI will annually generate value of $3.5 to $5.8 trillion across various sectors.
In 2018, a portrait that was christened Edmond de Belamy was made in a French art collective called Obvious. It used a database with 15,000 portraits from the 1300s to the 1900s to train a deep learning algorithm to produce a unique portrait. The painting sold for $432,500 in a New York auction. Similarly, a program called Aiva, trained on thousands of classical compositions, has released albums whose pieces are being used by ad agencies and movies.
The datasets used by these algorithms were different, but behind both there was a programmer who changed the brush strokes or musical notes into lines of code and a data scientist or engineer who fitted and “curated” the datasets to use for the model. There could also have been user-based input, and the output may be biased towards certain styles or unintentionally infringe on similar pieces of art. This shows that there are many collaborators with distinct roles in producing AI-generated content, and it’s important to discuss how they can protect their proprietary interests.
A perspective article published in Nature Machine Intelligence by Jason K. Eshraghian in March looks into how AI artists and the collaborators involved should assess their ownership, laying out some guiding principles that are “only applicable for as long as AI does not have legal parenthood, the way humans and corporations are accorded.”
Before looking at how collaborators can protect their interests, it’s useful to understand the basic requirements of copyright law. The artwork in question must be an “original work of authorship fixed in a tangible medium.” Given this principle, the author asked whether it’s possible for AI to exercise creativity, skill, or any other indicator of originality. The answer is still straightforward—no—or at least not yet. Currently, AI’s range of creativity doesn’t exceed the standard used by the US Copyright Office, which states that copyright law protects the “fruits of intellectual labor founded in the creative powers of the mind.”
Due to the current limitations of narrow AI, it must have some form of initial input that helps develop its ability to create. At the moment AI is a tool that can be used to produce creative work in the same way that a video camera is a tool used to film creative content. Video producers don’t need to comprehend the inner workings of their cameras; as long as their content shows creativity and originality, they have a proprietary claim over their creations.
The same concept applies to programmers developing a neural network. As long as the dataset they use as input yields an original and creative result, it will be protected by copyright law; they don’t need to understand the high-level mathematics, which in this case are often black box algorithms whose output it’s impossible to analyze.
Will robots and algorithms eventually be treated as creative sources able to own copyrights? The author pointed to the recent patent case of Warner-Lambert Co Ltd versus Generics where Lord Briggs, Justice of the Supreme Court of the UK, determined that “the court is well versed in identifying the governing mind of a corporation and, when the need arises, will no doubt be able to do the same for robots.”
In the meantime, Dr. Eshraghian suggests four guiding principles to allow artists who collaborate with AI to protect themselves.
First, programmers need to document their process through online code repositories like GitHub or BitBucket.
Second, data engineers should also document and catalog their datasets and the process they used to curate their models, indicating selectivity in their criteria as much as possible to demonstrate their involvement and creativity.
Third, in cases where user data is utilized, the engineer should “catalog all runs of the program” to distinguish the data selection process. This could be interpreted as a way of determining whether user-based input has a right to claim the copyright too.
Finally, the output should avoid infringing on others’ content through methods like reverse image searches and version control, as mentioned above.
AI-generated artwork is still a very new concept, and the ambiguous copyright laws around it give a lot of flexibility to AI artists and programmers worldwide. The guiding principles Eshraghian lays out will hopefully shed some light on the legislation we’ll eventually need for this kind of art, and start an important conversation between all the stakeholders involved.
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