Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

AI, robots will never replace humans but can make us more productive and efficient: Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey tells us how AI and humans can coexist and complement each other and how a vision of the future can shape the present

Published: Aug 2, 2023 01:16:28 PM IST
Updated: Aug 2, 2023 01:53:56 PM IST

AI, robots will never replace humans but can make us more productive and efficient: Thomas FreyThomas Frey is the founder of the DaVinci Institute in Colorado, where he is currently the executive director and senior futurist.

Is AI poised to trump humans? What's the future of work? What's the role of creativity in an AI-dominated world? Thomas Frey, founder of the DaVinci Institute in Colorado, offers a futuristic perspective. In this conversation, he also reflects on the dramatic shifts caused by technological advances in ecommerce, transport, and healthcare. He also chimes on if intelligence and empathy will remain tough-to-replace skills. "AI, robots, and automation will never replace humans, but they do have the potential to make us far more effective, efficient, and productive than ever before in human history," Frey says.

Edited excerpts:

Q. The present and the future—how do you perceive the interplay between the two?
The interplay between present and future is dynamic and influenced by various factors such as technology, culture, economy, environment, and individual choices. By understanding these connections, we can create a brighter future for all of us.

A vision of the future can significantly impact the present by changing the way people set goal, or inspire someone to take action, or encourage innovation, or boost collaboration, or even help shape public policy. A truly compelling vision can motivate people, and even organisations to make choices and take actions that align with the desired future, ultimately nudging the present towards a more desirable outcome.

Q. Is there a real threat of AI outperforming humans?
The relationship between AI and humans is complex and multifaceted. There are certainly areas where AI has the potential to outperform humans, particularly in tasks that require processing vast amounts of data or solving complex problems in a short time. However, this does not necessarily mean that AI will replace humans entirely or pose an existential threat.

AI and humans can coexist and complement each other in many ways. By leveraging the strengths of both, we can create a symbiotic relationship that allows for increased productivity and efficiency. For instance, AI can help humans with mundane, tedious tasks or analyse large datasets, while humans can provide the creativity, empathy, and nuanced understanding that machines currently lack.

Q. Where does creativity figure in an AI-dominated world?
I recently wrote a column titled, “The Difference between Human Creativity and Generative AI Creativity”. The distinctions between human creativity and generative AI creativity are significant, yet both possess unique strengths that can be harnessed and combined for extraordinary outcomes. Human creativity, rooted in personal experiences and emotions, offers intentionality and emotional depth that cannot be replicated by AI. Generative AI creativity, while limited by its training data and algorithms, can produce novel and technically proficient content that has the potential to broaden creative horizons.

The key to unlocking the full potential of both human creativity and generative AI creativity lies in collaboration and integration. By understanding and appreciating the unique strengths of each, artists, designers, and other creative professionals can explore innovative ways to merge the two, resulting in groundbreaking work that pushes the boundaries of creative expression.

Q. How is the nature of jobs set to evolve?
Jobs will evolve significantly as AI, automation, and emerging technologies make the best employees 2-10 times more productive. At the same time, AI will usher in a new era of entrepreneurship, unlike anything in the past, and the demand for employees will skyrocket.

New job roles, such as AI specialists and robotics engineers, will emerge, while existing jobs will be transformed as automation takes over boring tasks. Skillset shifts will place greater emphasis on digital literacy, data analysis, programming, and soft skills like adaptability and critical thinking.

Remote and flexible work will become more common, fuelled by AI-powered tools. Lifelong learning will be crucial for staying relevant in the job market, and AI will enable a new era of entrepreneurship will continually offer more accessible and more affordable technology.

As AI becomes more integrated into the workplace, human-AI teamwork will be essential, combining human creativity with machine efficiency.

Also read: 'Don't believe AI will lead to mass job losses': Arundhati Bhattacharya, Salesforce India CEO   

Q. There is much concern over ChatGPT being a threat to the search industry, particularly Google’s dominance. What are some of the jobs at risk due to generative AI?

Jobs at risk due to generative AI include those involving repetitive tasks, data analysis, and content creation, such as data entry clerks, customer service representatives, translators, and copywriters. Automation may also impact low-skilled labour in manufacturing, logistics, and transportation.

At the same time, AI is increasing our capabilities. AI’s capabilities today are built upon the knowledge, discoveries, and innovations of humans in the past. AI systems like language models are trained on vast amounts of historical data, which include human-generated text, images, and other forms of information. This enables AI to learn patterns, understand context, and perform various tasks, from translation to image recognition.

However, AI's reliance on past human knowledge also means it inherits the biases, inaccuracies, and limitations present in the data. To overcome these limitations and develop more advanced AI, researchers continuously improve algorithms, refine training data, and incorporate novel approaches.

Q. How do you perceive the workforce of the future?
We are far more aware than ever before in human history. The workforce of the future will prioritise flexibility, work-life balance, and personal growth. Remote work and gig economy opportunities will increase, leading to a more diverse, adaptable, and skill-focussed labour pool. Companies will need to adapt their policies and culture to attract and retain talent in this ever-evolving landscape.

Q. Automation has considerably reduced the incidence of risk. How will this pan out?
Risk is reduced by streamlining processes and minimising human error. For instance, in the insurance industry, it can enhance underwriting accuracy, optimise claims processing, and improve fraud detection. This can lead to cost savings, better customer involvement, and more tailored insurance products, ultimately benefiting both insurers and policyholders.

Q. What’s in store for banks in an increasingly digital landscape?
In the evolving digital landscape, banks must adapt by embracing new technologies, enhancing digital customer familiarities, and offering innovative financial products. Collaborating with fintech and investment in cybersecurity will be vital. By focusing on personalisation, convenience, and security, banks can stay relevant and competitive in the changing financial ecosystem.

Technological advances are effecting dramatic shifts. What is the impact you foresee in:

a. Ecommerce
In ecommerce, technological advances will lead to enhanced personalisation, seamless shopping experiences, and increased use of AI-driven tools. Voice and visual search, augmented reality, and drone deliveries will improve customer convenience, while data analytics and automation will optimise supply chain efficiency and inventory management.
b. Transport
In transport, technological advances will bring autonomous vehicles, electrification, and improved connectivity. This will lead to reduced emissions, increased safety, and more efficient traffic management. Additionally, the integration of IoT and AI will enable smart infrastructure and real-time data sharing, revolutionizing the way we travel and commute.
c. Healthcare
In healthcare, technological advances will enable personalised medicine, a greater role for telehealth, and AI-driven, combined with mobile, diagnostics. Advanced medical devices, wearable technology, and genomics will improve prevention and treatment, while big data analytics will enhance research and decision-making. This will lead to more accessible, efficient, and tailored health-related services, ultimately improving patient outcomes.

Also read: How AI in travel and hospitality is enhancing experiences and optimising operations

Q. AI and automation are making human interference redundant in many areas. But can they ever capture the nuances of human emotions?
While AI and automation are becoming increasingly sophisticated, fully capturing the depths and nuances of human emotions remains a challenge. AI can analyse and recognise emotions to some extent, but replicating the complexity and empathy of human emotional intelligence is still beyond its current capabilities. Human understanding, intuition, and empathy will continue to be valuable in various domains.

Q. Won’t emotional intelligence and empathy remain irreplaceable skills?

For the most part, emotional intelligence and empathy will remain tough-to-replace skills, but these aren’t the only ones.

When it comes to designing machines to replace humans, we often forget how enormously complex we are. We have a need to compete, a need to belong, a sense of purpose, we crave attention, love, importance, and the human touch.

The key point here is that when it comes to AI and automation, the marketplace will decide, and the market is not always logical. Humans are still the consumers and very often the value of the experience far outweighs the incongruity of decisions being made. Simply put, we live in a human-based economy, and humans are not always logical.

This brings us to the irrationality of being human.

Will a robot’s smile ever be as comforting as a mother’s smile? If a robot tells you you’re beautiful, will that ever mean as much as when your boyfriend or girlfriend says it?

It’s easy to start listing all the so-called inferior traits that people have. Robots don’t sweat, complain, have to urinate, take breaks, get angry, or make mistakes. We generally don’t design machines to be cruel, insulting, lazy, vindictive, violent, irrational, clumsy, greedy, envious, hotheaded, power-hungry, selfish, shy, tactless, superficial, or stupid.

However, humans come with a number of positive characteristics to offset all the negative ones. We can also be friendly, helpful, charming, warmhearted, risk-taking, courageous, empathetic, inspiring, bold, brilliant, resourceful, benevolent, gracious, humble, and forgiving.

AI, robots, and automation will never replace humans, but they do have the potential to make us far more effective, efficient, and productive than ever before in human history.