COVID-19 has brought more flexible working, particularly homeworking, for many. Will those changes be sustained after the pandemic and allow previously excluded workers into the labour market? And how will the artificial intelligence revolution affect the jobs we do and who does them? With Drs Christopher Markou, Helen McCarthy, Neil Lawrence and Stella Pachidi. This event is taking place in partnership with The Hay Festival (<www.hayfestival.com>)
What follows is a transcript of my talk, which was unscripted so apologies for inaccuracies and colloquialisms.
Thank you Henry, and thanks to everyone that’s spoken so far, I’ve really enjoyed hearing such a diversity of perspectives on Artificial Intelligence so my own background as Henry said is as a Machine Learning researcher and I’ve been doing that for about 20 years and I guess it’s gone from a technology we were working on to one that’s widespread everywhere. It’s basically what everyone is calling Artificial Intelligence.
So I’ve ended up moving towards trying to explain a little bit about what I think the social phenomena are behind AI, although I was working on the algorithms I became very interested in what the effects of those algorithms are going to be. I really wanted to start by harking back to Helen’s talk which I really enjoyed, particularly the images.
So having spent the best part of 20 years in Sheffield, where I was professor before, the costume of Yorkshire in 1814, which is representing a sort of bygone world that if you live in the North, it existed everywhere, it haunts the landscape. That world as Helen so beautifully described was often based on this mix between homeworking and an emerging industrial society. We used to cycle down to Cromford which is the birthplace of Arkwright’s Factory system and that’s all based around these ideas that Helen was talking about.
So, I was at Amazon for 3 years as Henry said. I was at Amazon, not because I was interested in working on funky AI systems, like these new intelligent agents. But I was really really interested in one of the most important things that surrounds us, and that is the supply chain. And I ended up deploying machine learning solutions in the Supply Chain.
You might think … “Well … Supply Chain … that can’t be very interesting”. But one of the things we saw in Helen’s presentation was the way that different groups at different times were either being victimised or liberated by their homeworking conditions and I think that’s a super-important point because there were pressures on those workers that are emerging from economic forces. And those are the forces that home workers experience. So I wanted to just talk a little bit about how, what we call artificial intelligence, is affecting those pressures and how we should be aware of what the future’s going to look like. And what I wanted to mention was that something that my colleague at Amazon Narayan Venkatasubramanyan at Amazon once told me. He’d been in Supply Chain his whole career. He was towards the end of his career and Amazon was his last spin, and he once said to me … he was from Bombay and had this wonderful deep resonant voice that I can’t do … so you have to imagine him saying this in a beautiful voice that almost sounds like a god.
He said: “The biggest change that occured over the 20th century is the switch from a push supply chain to a pull supply chain.” So what does he mean by that? Well he went on to describe he said “Look if hyou manufactured something at the end of the Second World War you could sell it to anyone.” There was this boom in the number of different vehicles that people were making and selling because the was a shortage of manufacturing. The biggest shift we saw occurring around the 50s and 60s and 70s, as you gained more and more manufacturers was … because the power is with those who are manufacturing initially … but then when you have an over supply of manufacturers because more and more countries become industrialised and get involved … the power shifts to the distributor. So the distributor now has a choice of places they can go and they have a choice of poeple that they can do business with. This applies pressure on the manufacturers or the farmers or whoever the supplier is.
Supply chain is about matching supply to demand and there are three components. There is the demand, what people want, there’s the supply, what people are making and there’s the transport logistics infrastructure for matching those. And what we saw was a massive shift from the power being with manufacturers to the power being with distributors. Big supermarkets, Amazon itself, Walmart. The people that control the market control the distribution. And that stuck with me a lot. It stuck with me because I was reading a profile of John McDonnel our former Shadow Chancellor, and at some point he wrote [said]: “Well you know I have to say I’m an old fashioned at heart, at heart I believe that we should be controlling the means of production.”
Well how dumb is that is no one is making any money out of production. Because what Marx was on about is the value is being created in manufacturing. He’s talking about an era when the manufacturers are in charge. And the shift we’ve seen is that they aren’t in charge. You can control the means of production, you control the people who are on the smallest margins who are having to work extremely hard to distribute their goods just in time. The value is all being made in distribution, so the modern Marx would be “control the means of distribution”.
So how does AI and Machine Learning effect that? Well, today we’re seeing a further shift. One thing is to control supply, but what if you go all the other way to the other side and you try to control demand. What if you can manipulate what people want. What if you can steer them to buy things that they didn’t formerly want. Well that’s the modern way of making money. Of course it’s called advertising, but what the internet allows, and let’s be very clear that this isn’t a story about AI, but this is a story about a massively interconnected world where information is flowing very rapidly. All AI is, is a set of algorithms that makes people able to make decisions on the back of that data. And what the companies that are making the most money at the moment are doing is advertising to you. And they make very very large profits through that. Because if you can control demand, that’s way better than controlling supply or distribution. And that’s the big shift we see for the future of work.
Now, what can we do about it? Well of course, the raw material … the clever bit about Marx is that the value is coming from the worker, so you have to do things to empower the worker. So [regardless of] whether you believe in communism, which I’m certainly not a communist myself, it’s true that you need to rebalance the equation so that eeverything is not controlled by the person that owns the mill. So you get workers’ rights, and what’s the modern equivalent of that? Well it’s data rights. And these aren’t new, in fact they go back to this book called “The Assault on Privacy” and this wonderful quote. “Today’s Laser Technology already makes it feasible to stor ea 20 page dossier on every American on a piece of tape that is less than 5000 feet long”. It’s written by a Guy called Arthur Miller, it’s written in 1970. Aleady then they realised the power of information, but they did not have this interconnected world. Now we already have legislation in this space, and it’s got the most appauling name ever because it’s called “Data Protection” legislation. But if you look back to the original legislation and you look at the original title, and I have to read it because I never remember it “THe convention for the protection of individuals with regard to automatic processing of personal data” and that’s what you need protecting against.
Now the unfortunate thing is that “The Assault on Privacy” and what people thought about then was all about consequential decision making. That decisions are being made about you, about legal decision making, it applies about whether you get to go to University, it applies whether you get a loan or not. But the big thing in terms of the modern era is the ‘inconsequential decision making’ of all the things you’re shown on Facebook, your newsfeed, your twitter feed, the adverts shown. None of which you gain any rights about. And the only way we regain those rights is to strengthen our own personal data rights and bring them together, colelctivise, in order to battle against them. So I think that that is going to be the big trend in the future of AI. It’s all about where you see the value being created, and right now you’re starting to see the value created in controlling the demand. And we need to retain that control of demand as personal citizens through retaining control of our personal data. And that’s all I wanted to say. Thank you.