- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2018


An economic boom just dropped on the world — and most, no doubt, aren’t even aware.

What happened? China’s retail and technology conglomerate, Alibaba, developed an artificial intelligence model that beat the humans it competed against in a Stanford University reading and comprehension test.

This is historic.

“This is the first time that a machine has outperformed humans on such a test,” Alibaba said in a statement.

But already, history’s repeated.

Microsoft Research Asia, shortly after Alibaba’s breakthrough, announced its own AI had beaten the humans on the same reading and comp test, as well.

The news generated a small media earthquake through the fields of technology and AI. But it should’ve taken front and center on the economy and market watch pages as well. When all’s said and done, the more AI advances, the less secure some workers’ jobs become.

This is the oft-sad but true trade-off of technological achievement, and it’s one that leads, as most roads seem to do, to a reckoning of dollar-and-cent realities.

So what’s the deal-io here?

The SQuAD — Stanford University reading and comprehension — is a dataset based on 500-plus Wikipedia articles, upon which 100,000 questions and answers were created. An example: Which NFL team represented the AFC at Super Bowl 50?

Another example: What are the three sources of European Union law?

The human standard score on this test is 82.3. But Alibaba and Microsoft AI both beat that, scoring 82.4 and 82.6, respectively. Other AI programs, like Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, Tencent and Salesforce, came close to beating the human standard.

Why care?

It’s not perfected yet, but a fully achieved goal for AI on reading and comprehension holds massive promise to change the world of work — which is to say, to dramatically reshape the economies of not just America’s, but of other nations, too.

“[T]he general techniques used in this test are very applicable to various commercial applications, including question answering or fact finding in response to people’s searches or information requests (on web or mobile) and in customer service applications,” said Christopher Manning, the Thomas M. Siebel professor in machine learning in the Department of Computer Science at Stanford University, in an email.

That means humans who work in jobs that require them to feed information to the public are at risk of AI replacement.

This is not hyperbole.

“[I]t is reasonable to assume that over the coming decade, a significant proportion of human customer service representations — not all, but probably the majority who answer more routine questions — will be replaced by digital assistants,” Manning said.

In other words: The layoffs are coming — and they’re coming soon. Moreover, it’s not just the people who answer phones.

Alibaba has already installed the technology on computers tied to Singles Day, a worldwide shopping event, as a means of fielding questions from buyers. The conglomerate is planning to gradually apply it to “museum tutorials and [for] online responses to medical inquiries from patients, decreasing the need for human input in an unprecedented way,” the company said in a statement.

“Unprecedented” — that’s code for anywhere questions are asked.

Customers may like it, at least initially. After all, who wants to wait on hold for an hour for a live human when a machinery-made customer service rep can do just as well, and in jig time? Or an online chatbot?

But for those whose livelihoods depend on the customer service sector, the view of all this AI achievement is quite different.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that the typical entry-level education requirement for most customer service representatives in 2016 was simply a high school diploma, or the equivalent. For that, workers in this sector earned, in the median, $32,300 a year, or $15.53 per hour. Not bad; in many places in America, that’s enough to more than eek out a living.

It’s a particularly decent living for those who have no desire, or no means, to go to college.

Companies may look at those numbers and see an AI way to cut payroll. And good for them. This is not a message against free-market capitalism. But the AI-related repercussions for the country at-large? Consider this: An employed America is a happy America — an America where self-sufficiency and independence is the standard expectation, and where government hand-outs are kept to a minimum.

Companies considering this new AI technology ought to simultaneously offer retraining for their customer service employees to obtain jobs in different fields. AI may be good for business, which translates into a booming economy. But then again, a country with low unemployment is booming for the national economy, as well. It’d be a shame for companies to see big gains from this chugging AI technology, only to see the country as a whole suffer from higher taxes to pay for the many unemployed.

Cheryl Chumley can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter, @ckchumley.

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