Jouko Ahvenainen

Machines are not humans, nor dogs

We can read daily about new AI solutions and how they replace human work. At the same time there are still skeptical comments that robots are not yet even near human beings. A typical comment is that a machine cannot replace a person, because a human touch is needed. Maybe these discussions illustrate that many people don’t know what AI is, and what its use actually means.

Thrivent Financial portrays a poor robot image in their TV advertising (see it here) and basically claims that human investment advisors are better. Of course, it can be a clever way to utilize prejudices, but in the longer term it can be an image problem, and if the company really sees machines and AI that way, they will have challenges to adapt to the new reality. Further, the ad may indeed be ignoring academic studies spanning decades arguing a contrarian point of view. 

MUFG Bank had a small robot at the Asian Financial Forum to demonstrate their FinTech activity. It was able to walk, its eyes had lights, and it was able to answer to simple questions about banking services. It was more like a customer services person who says welcome at the door and directs you to the right service desk.

Guilty Robots, Happy Dogs (see more here) is a philosophical and psychological book about robots, pets, and especially about human beings. People often want to humanize other entities and think they behave and think like human beings. When your dog does something, it’s easy to explain its behavior as a person who would do the same thing. But there is no evidence that any animal really thinks or behaves based on the same model, consciousness, and feelings as human beings do.

We easily make the same mistake with machines. Of course, many science fiction movies also emphasize this notion. It is easy to think AI is still the same thing as those robots that walk, think and behave like people. And then you see that, it’s easy to conclude that they are still far behind human beings.

But that perception is quickly misleading.  Real machine learning and AI solutions are anything except these science fictions robots. There are no clumsy robots driving a Tesla car, replacing lawyers at J.P. Morgan to analyze loan agreements, or sitting in the cockpit of airplanes, or behind the scenes in a robo-advisor wealth management back office.

Machine learning and AI emerge especially from data analytics. Those machines are able to collect a lot of data from many sources, learning from data and then making decisions and taking action based on the data. These machines are then integrated to other systems and machines to guide and control them. Often it also means cooperation and interaction of machines and people. The machines help people in operations which they can handle much better than people, for example, analyzing millions of data points each second and making conclusions based on them. If we compare AI and humans, it may seem that AI is the one born with a purpose and humans spend most their life trying to find one.

Why it is important to realize this difference between real intelligent machines and images? This can actually be a very important problem in decision making in companies and politics. People who don’t know the reality of machines and AI can easily underestimate its current status, if they only think about badly walking tick figures. At the same time they can be too afraid to think of these ‘human being like’ entities coming to replace them in all areas of life.

It is its own complex discussion - if machines can ever be like human beings. Probably they learn to walk and move like people, but if we think consciousness, ethics, and feelings, it is much harder to evaluate if they ever become similar. However, that may be a distracting discussion especially from the practical reality of today, given that’s not what they are being programmed to do. Where the very reason of AI’s existence is fundamentally different than that of humans and AI is very much still birthed to perform specific functions and tasks, at an optimal pace and quality. There are many areas where machines are already better than people, where they are replacing people and interacting with people.

We cannot anymore ignore the role of machine and AI in business, starting from manufacturing and car driving to FinTech, legal work or decision-making. It also means people must learn to better utilize machines all the time and interact with them. The top management of companies and political decision makers must also know the reality of machines and how they really have an impact on business, the economy and job market. Everyone should learn the basics of AI, not only watch science fiction movies.