Software

Bot master and techno serf: Your future in a world dominated by machines

LinuxCon: "The algorithms that we design will have a big impact on the way that wealth and inequality play out over the next decade".

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Sean Gourley's model of the future relationship between people and machines.
Society is entering an era where people will increasingly exploit and be exploited by smart software.

Dr Sean Gourley - TED Fellow and co-founder of augmented intelligence firm Quid - says the shift to code being wired into everything we do has already begun, as evidenced by the bulk of internet traffic being generated not by humans, but by algorithms.

"We need to get over the fact that the internet is no longer dominated by us," he told the LinuxCon Europe event in Dublin.

Today a sizeable number of these algorithms are devoted to packaging us up as products, so our identities can be sold in online ad auctions that take place in the blink of an eye each time we load a web page.

"These algorithms get together and they trade your identity, they trade your history, they trade and bid against each other for the right to show you information," he said, adding the trade generates multi-billion dollar revenues for purveyors such as Google and Facebook.

But the online future envisioned by Gourley offers scope for people to be more than just commodities to be traded.

Others will be what he calls techno serfs, dedicated to performing roles that machines find too difficult to carry out.

Such jobs already exist today - in those offering transcription or personal assistant services via online portals such as Amazon's Mechanical Turk.

"There are literally millions of people employed doing jobs the algorithms don't know how to do or can't do cheaply enough. More people are going to start working for these algorithms."

As the practice of humans filling in the gaps for machines becomes more common, some of the jobs generated will look bizarre by today's standards. Gourley shared this image below, showing someone whose job it is to download apps to each of the Android phones in the rack - earning a few cents for each download.

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The roles left for humans in a bot-dominated world could also be narrower, as demonstrated in Amazon warehouses that use Kira bots to fetch items. Since the change staff no longer walk the warehouse selecting items from shelves, but instead stand picking items from an unending parade of shelves that are delivered to them by the bots.

Becoming a bot master

As with any trend, this shift towards software being integral to our lives isn't wholly good or bad.

What is arguably good is software that augments our intelligence - allowing us to carry out tasks that would otherwise be more difficult or even impossible.

An obvious example today is the online taxi service Uber, where a computer system guides drivers from fare to fare without them needing to know the local area.

Similarly for intelligence analysts, doctors or anyone who needs to digest huge amounts of information rapidly, software is increasingly able to parse vast amounts of material and present the salient facts.

In the medical field, IBM's Watson system is scouring patients' genetic profiles and the medical literature to generate personalised treatment plans and completing the process in minutes rather than weeks.

"It's the emergence of a new kind of paradigm for computing," Gourley said.

"We're going to see these kinds of interfaces as humans and machines start to interact and the lines between human and a machine start to blur."

Gourley also predicts the continued rise of personal bots that learn our routines and organise our daily activities.

Like Apple's Siri, Google Now and Microsoft Cortana, these systems will try to anticipate our needs and flag the information we want before we ask for it - such as the traffic jam that will make us late for work or the birthday present we need to buy.

Good or bad, the algorithmic invasion of our lives is here to stay, according to Gourley.

"Unfortunately, I don't think this has got an on-off switch. I think we're committed to this experiment and we're going to have to see how it plays out."

But while stopping may not be an option, in a world where the wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite it's important for those algorithms to reflect the society we want to live in.

"We're the ones who build algorithms. We design them and we can code values, beliefs and understanding into them.

"The algorithms that we design will have a big impact on the way that wealth and inequality play out over the next decade".

About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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