Perhaps you’ve heard about the looming artificial intelligence revolution and wondered what it means for your life if those futurists’ predictions become facts of life.
But, while that world-altering revolution is moving towards us at full steam, there are some ways to embrace the same technologies – virtual reality, for instance – to ensure the rise of the machines doesn’t reduce your career to a wreckage of outdated skills.
We’re already seeing the machines take over some jobs once done by humans.
If you’ve ever visited a manufacturer’s website – a car maker, curtain outlet or telecommunications company, for example – to check prices and equipment options and been engaged by a dialogue box in which a pop-up “person” answers to your questions, you’ve probably already engaged with AI.
Chances are that box is run by an AI algorithm, rather than a flesh-and-blood individual – and you most likely won’t have noticed the difference.
Such technology also offers a big upside for people’s work skills.
One of the brightest prospects is called “just-in-time learning”, and its goal is to make sure humans remain at least one career-enhanced step ahead of tech.
“The future of learning is three ‘justs’ – just enough, just-in-time, and just-for-me,” says US tech guru Patty Woolcock, who heads the California Strategic Human Resource Partnership, which is backed by some of Silicon Valley’s behemoths.
But tech gurus warn that it won’t be enough to simply be exposed to information. Those exploring new skills and extending existing ones will need to use this knowledge in real-world settings.
Just-in-time learning also anticipates the pressing need to apply newfound knowledge. Here, the related revolution in virtual reality has enormous implications for the future of schools, TAFEs, universities and in-house corporate training initiatives.
Say your employer has just expanded into a foreign market and you have the experience and qualifications to head up that new division – except you don’t speak a word of the language.
Hopes of career advancement dashed? Not so fast.
Virtual reality program Unimersiv (download it here if you already own the right hardware) allows you meet other language students from all over the world and master foreign tongues as if you were all learning together.
The wonders of virtual reality mean you can “live” for as long as you like in a virtual version of Paris, Beijing or 100 other destinations without ever getting off the couch.
Universities are also using virtual reality more widely. Deakin University in Victoria, for example, considers it a key ingredient of its information technology courses. Monash – also in Victoria – uses the same technology to offer guided tours of its campuses.
In classrooms, be they in school or higher education, the future is unusually clear: The marriage of virtual reality and artificial intelligence promises to spawn new generations of practical applications and career opportunities.
Google’s futurist Daydream Labs is one of the first to try to bridge the gap between the practical and possible.
It conducted a study with a simple goal: How fast and how well could subjects learn to make good coffee by mastering a barista’s skills with the help of artificial intelligence and virtual reality.
It found that, compared against a control group that studied coffee-making videos on YouTube, virtual reality students assimilated information more quickly – in just two-thirds of the time it took most of the YouTube users. They also performed much better in subsequent tests to determine how much of the knowledge had actually sunk in.
“We were excited to find out that people learned faster and better in VR,” Daydream Labs’ said.
“Both the number of mistakes made and the time to complete an espresso were significantly lower for those trained in VR.”
But the results were more mixed for AI, especially when considering it as a teaching method.
“Every choice we gave a user led to an exponential growth in the number of paths through the tutorial,” DreamLabs said – largely due to that innate human failing, a seemingly hard-wired instinct not to read and follow instructions.
“We had to model all kinds of situations – for example, letting the user steam the milk before grinding the coffee. In the end, it was much easier to model the trainer like a video game.”
The lessons from DreamLabs’ coffee tutorial can be broadly applied, particularly by those who want their careers to stay in front of the tech wave.
For now though, humans appear to still have the edge – if only just.
US college debating champion Harish Natarajan came out on top in March 2019 when he took on a black box of wires, chips and AI programming in what was billed as a milestone face-off between man and machine.
The debating machine, developed by IBM, instantly sifts a data base of 300 million newspaper, magazine and journal articles, extracts and marshals appropriate facts and forms them into articulate, coherent sentences and arguments. It even tosses in a few jokes.
Against Natarajan and judged by humans, the computer came off second best – but only narrowly.
IBM's AI competed against human champion Harish Natarajan in a debate. Here are the results pic.twitter.com/s32SxXNlXQ
— TicToc by Bloomberg (@tictoc) February 13, 2019
“Technological progress has been aided by the recent production of increasingly large and complex data sets, known as Big Data,” a landmark 2013 Oxford study noted.
It also added another example of tech’s expanding capacity to replace human minds.
“With a growing corpus of human-translated digitalised text, the success of a machine translator can now be judged by its accuracy in reproducing observed translations,” its authors reported.
Simply put, that means an AI scanner can determine if that is your signature or a forgery – and refer any issues for appropriate action. If it flags any issues, you should expect a phone call from yet another AI programmed voice to confirm if you really did intend to transfer that five-figure sum to a purported Nigerian prince.