In 1831, Manchester Royal Infirmary in the UK used 50,000 leeches in treating the ill of the first great industrial city. Twenty years later, John Leonard Riddell, of Tulane University in New Orleans invented the first practical binocular microscope. In 1930, Manchester Royal Infirmary closed its leech aquarium.
It’s often said that the future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed. The uneven distribution of progress can also be seen in the historical record. The bottom fell out of the leech market, when Hirudo Medicinalis, long the go-to solution for physik’s, barbers, and surgeons, was superseded by Riddell’s technology that allowed doctors to see – at a cellular level – what was truly causing the problem. A microscope could detect a bacteria that was causing tuberculosis. An intestinal infection that would lead to cholera. A cell mutating into a cancer. The medical microscope opened up entirely new options and possibilities that not only made the leech redundant but created an industry that today employs millions and millions of people around the world, and in the process made the world a better place.
This simple allegorical story is an entry point to understanding how AI related technologies are set to change the world again - to employ billions and billions of people, and in the process make the world an even better place.
For AI isn’t, as it is being popularly portrayed in the click-bait media, simply a job destroyer. AI is a new tool – a datascope perhaps – that will allow us to see in much more fine grain detail, and allow us to do work that has previously been unimaginable. New tools allow us to do new things. Incredibly powerful tools allow us to do incredibly powerful new things. New tools don’t automate people away. They allow people to do things that people have never able to do before.
AI is set to revolutionize just about everything we can think of, in the way that technologies like the microscope changed medicine. In another generation using non-AI infused technology will seem as barbaric as using leeches does today. It’s likely that the next generation of ambulance chasing lawyers will argue that doctors that don’t use AI tools are guilty of medical malpractice.
In the transformation from leeches to microscopes, did Riddell destroy anyone’s job? Well, probably he did. The leech magnates of Cottonopolis no doubt went to their graves cursing Riddell’s name. But microscopes were central to the explosive growth of healthcare that lead to the population and economic growth that made the modern world. Nobody in their right mind now would argue that we should have stayed in a leech based paradigm. Of course, if your current business model is a modern version of leech breeding or retailing, then AI is bad news. You may be able to eke out a living for a generation or two, as the leech magnates did until 1930, but nobody mourned their passing and nobody will mourn the passing of their modern equivalents.
The medical field in fact presents lots of opportunities to see how the interplay between tools and people – between man and machine – plays out, and will play out, in the future. And nobody is closer to this – and more bullish on the possibilities ahead – than Dr. Eric Topol, author of the best-selling book The Patient Will See Now and Founder and Director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, California. Topol has recently taken the “AI as a job destroyer” argument head on in the area of radiology, where advances in machine based MRI analysis have led some to believe that radiologists will soon be as redundant as leech wranglers;
“AI is an adjunct to radiologists … whose purpose is to scale the productivity of radiologists … AI’s true impact on radiologists will be its ability to integrate information, rather than hasten information extraction … the amount and sources of information are outstripping our ability to understand their significance … AI is well placed to perform pixel biopsies”. Journal of the American College of Radiology, March 2018.
Topol sees AI not as a tool that reduces the labor component of a process, but as means to increase the overall scale of the process. In short, the tool will allow the radiologist to see and do more, to manage much finer grain information, and in sum produce better outcomes.
This is a profound insight and outlines a much more realistic vision of how AI will create the future of work, not just in medicine, but in every field. The three key ingredients of this future are density, complexity and speed;
Density – the first microscopes had a scale of 9X (i.e. they could make things appear nine times larger than they actually were). The most advanced microscope in use today (at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada) has a scale of 14mX (i.e. it can make things appear 14 million times larger than they actually are). The density of this pixilation is extraordinary and is opening up new vistas in areas such as nanotechnology, which will be core to the next generation of electronics and technology. Greater and greater levels of density can be seen in just about any aspect of contemporary life, but ironically, are often hard to see – take for example, an ordinary Monday morning for an ordinary office worker in an ordinary town in any country in the western world. Wake up; check email, check Twitter, text the kids to wake up, put on the TV, scan CNN, the BBC, read the front page of the New York Times, the Sun, Buzzfeed. Get dressed. Get out of the front door. Travel to work; check email again, check Twitter. Dial into a conference call. Scan Apple News. Check E*TRADE. Shazam the song playing in the train station. Book a hotel for tomorrow’s business trip. Check email. At your desk; check email. Respond to email, check Twitter. Get mad at Twitter. Start working on the overdue end of month report. Check Twitter... etc etc.
All before 8:30am of a morning …
This density would be completely unrecognizable to Dr. Riddell. Put him in a time machine and catapult him forward to 2018 and he would be catatonic amidst the bustle of the world he found himself in. (Tim Urban of fame talks about Die Progress Units (DPUs) to illustrate this idea - the amount of time it takes human beings to achieve enough progress that the shock of bringing a time traveler to your era would kill them). Even somebody retired for a few years and adrift from contemporary work mores would be shocked by this density of information, activity, and action. Yet this is completely normal to most of us now.
Complexity – allied to density is the complexity of life and work in 2018. Again, take an average ordinary worker in an average ordinary job and think about how many information sources they are trying to juggle, how many steps there are in the process they are executing, how many “stakeholders” need to be consulted, how many reports need to be generated, how many accounts need to be reconciled. Now think about a “superstar” hedge fund manager, a video game developer, a commercial jet pilot, a CGI film maker, a reinsurance portfolio executive, a national security analyst. The complexity of these jobs – the information that needs to be sourced, managed, integrated, analyzed, leveraged – is a far cry from the jobs that Richard Scarry would have outlined in his What Do People Do All-Day books for kids from just a generation ago.
My job – as I’m sure is true for yours – is far more complicated than it was just a few years ago. I work with teams of people all around the world (we set meetings for mutually inconvenient times), with different cultural attitudes and expectations; I need to juggle much more information than ever and need to be au-fait with developments far beyond the walls of head-office, let alone my home office. My clients – as are yours - are more demanding and unforgiving than ever. The stakes are higher. Bad decisions have greater ramifications. Disruption is a greater and greater reality. Life – and work – has never been less simple. Hence why, as an aside, so many people from Marseilles to the aforementioned Manchester, to Mason, Ohio, have a deep nostalgia for the past. For less complicated times …
Speed – in the 1990’s the CEO of the software company Oracle, Larry Ellison, had an infamous dictum – the 24 Hour Rule – that made it clear that if you didn’t respond to an email within 24 hours you’d be out of a job. As of June 2018, that seems adorable. 24 hours? If you don’t reply to an email within 24 minutes nowadays you’re considered a loser – a B player in an organization that only hires A players. The acceleration of modern business life is again so extraordinary as to be almost invisible to us. Because we are the proverbial frogs in the pan of heating water we find it hard to understand how much faster work (and life) occurs than it did just a few years ago. Information travels around the world in a fraction of a second. Ideas spread from San Francisco to Singapore as fast as they do to Sacramento. People fly from Sydney to Beijing for a lunch meeting and then turn around and go straight back home. In James Clavell’s wonderful series of books about the first Europeans in Asia (Shogun, Tai Pan etc) the world record in 1848 for the fastest journey from London to Hong Kong is set at 59 days. Now that’s a 15 hour flight. Many people understand the meaning and significance of Moore’s Law (the doubling of transistors in an integrated circuit every two years); far less, I would wager, really understand the significance of the speeding up of every aspect of the modern world. And yet this speeding up – this exponential curve we are in, and which shows no sign of faltering – is unprecedented across the long arc of man’s existence. As Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada put it at the World Economic Forum in January 2018, “the pace of change has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow again”.
Topol’s insight of how AI will allow radiologists to see more data (the pixel biopsy), integrate that with other information sources (“multilayered data” in his medical vernacular), and make faster decisions, is 100% transferable into any and every discipline and business process that one can than think of. Density, complexity, and speed are all set to be turbocharged by new AI and machine learning capabilities. “Datascopes” will allow your business to see more data, integrate it with other data, and make decisions faster than ever before. And in doing that open incredible new opportunities for commercial growth and levels of employment.
In our recent book, What To Do When Machines Do Everything, we argue – counter intuitively to some – that in 10 years employment levels in the western world will be higher than they are today. For some people that’s a head scratcher. But in our vision – and in Dr. Topol’s – AI is the next generation of tool that, as tools have always done, allow people to do things faster and easier and to do things that they couldn’t do without tools.
AI and automation will only have a net negative effect on jobs if – and this is a huge if, that we don’t believe – we can’t find new things to do.
Dr. Riddell’s microscope allowed people a panoply of new things to do – thank heavens. Our new tools – in medicine and every other industry – will allow us to grapple with a world that is denser, more complex, and faster than ever before. From that algorithm (Dn X Cn X Sn) emerges the future of all our work.
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