The philosophical war between artificial intelligence (AI) and intelligence augmentation (IA) has been waged for more than half a century, with the focus shifting between the two as each has made important strides.
The last two decades have witnessed AI’s rising fortunes, with the success of IBM’s Deep Bluecomputer, which beat chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov in 1997, Big Blue’s Watson defeat of American TV show Jeopardy’s champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in 2011, and most recently, Google’s AlphaGo defeat of Go champion Lee Sedol this year.
These successes demonstrated the superiority of computers over humans in accomplishing a certain kind of undertaking. And following each victory, various predictions emerged of the ascension of machines and the demise of the human.
AI, bots and the cloud
According to AI theorists, it’s not just game-playing computer programmes that are poised to wrest control of your life. In the last few months Microsoft, Google and Facebook have all announced bot frameworks – software designed to automate tasks, like setting up an appointment or performing an Internet search.
Modern bots employ AI technology to process conversations (or text sessions), effectively replacing the human operators who typically stand behind these processes.
Experts predict bots will soon replace apps as the primary way we complete tasks. The simplicity of the bot promises to replace the rigid structure of the app; it’s easier and more intuitive to use. Instead of navigating through an app, you will simply speak to (or text) a bot and tell it what you want.
Is that it for IA?
After 50 years, has IA finally been vanquished? Are we ready to relinquish control to autonomous cars, software bots, and AI-based recommendation engines?
The answer is yes and no. While AI will clearly play a larger role in our daily lives, it is not a panacea. AI-based solutions work best in structured environments where all relevant information can be considered and where the goals of the system are specifically defined – ordering a pizza, setting a meeting, playing chess and so on.
In all these cases, while the number of possible outcomes that has to be considered may be enormous, the outcome can be predicted with a high degree of confidence (and can be tweaked based on user response to improve results in the future). This is exactly the situation where a powerful computer has an advantage over the human mind. On the other hand, artificial intelligence is not well-suited to situations where goals and inputs are not well-defined; it’s here where intelligence augmentation will continue to play a major role.
Let’s look at an example. A salesperson focused on closing business relies upon many different systems to do their job. Email is the main source of information today, but others include SharePoint, Box, or Dropbox for documents; Skype and CRM among others. On any given day, integrating that disparate information is an exhausting task. AI-based machine learning systems can extract topics from messages on each of these systems and even match them across systems. But then what does the salesperson do with that information?
Here is where AI reaches its limits and IA excels – assisting the human operator in evaluating what action should to be taken next.
A virtual détente
Today’s information worker is inundated by inputs from an increasing number of data sources, and as a result they are turning to a growing number of cloud services to get business done: for storing and sharing documents; for completing transactions via CRM, HR, and business-specific apps; and for communicating with peers via social tools like Skype and Slack.
Since individuals and departments can sign up for whatever services they need (often without IT’s approval), the corpus of tools being used by an organisation is becoming progressively diverse. Trying to make sense of this discord of signals is creating an information overload for workers, who now run the risk of dropping the ball instead of focusing on, and completing, important work endeavors. Simply put, it’s becoming more difficult to see the information forest for the data trees.
The AI vs. IA war isn’t a war after all. They both have an important role to play in our future.