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AI Can Actually Make Us Better: The Case for AI-Driven Human Augmentation

The current narrative surrounding artificial intelligence (AI) and the human labor force is that it will turn out bad for humans. The more AI becomes adept at completing the tasks that people currently do, the harder it will be to find and keep a job.

However, this runs contrary to the long history of automation, dating from the dawn of civilization. Every technological advance, from the ox-driven plow to the latest robotic manufacturing systems, has led to more jobs, not fewer.

And currently, there are a number of AI programs in development centered on augmenting human capabilities to make people more effective at their jobs and, thus, more valuable to their employers.

Differentiating AGI and NAI in the Workplace

It seems that the key disconnect right now is the fact that most of the headline-grabbing expectations of AI in the workplace involve artificial general intelligence (AGI), which is only one branch of the technology and is focused mainly on replicating the thought processes of the human brain. But as researchers at Switzerland’s Bern University of Applied Sciences point out, AGI is still in a very nascent stage of development, and its capacity to achieve the “singularity” of replicated human thought is still highly theoretical.

Nearly all actual deployments of AI in the enterprise involve narrow artificial intelligence (NAI), which is very limited in scope, and most often designed to accomplish a single task.

Far from replacing human labor, NAI has great potential to augment it, allowing individuals throughout the workplace hierarchy to become more productive – particularly in creative areas such as process refinement, capitalization on new opportunities, and development of new business and operating models.

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As AI continues to evolve, the key to success lies not in the replacement of human labor but in refining the human-machine interaction paradigm.

The Rise of Human Augmentation

Indeed, the global movement toward human augmentation is already well underway. A new report from Global Industry Analysts Inc. places the worldwide market surrounding this technology at $630 billion and growing at nearly 20% per year.

The ways in which AI can augment human capabilities are many and varied. Some of the examples are:

  • Sophisticated wearable devices like intelligent glasses and hearing aids;
  • Esoteric advancements in prosthetic limbs, exoskeletons, and even direct brain-computer interfaces.

At the same time, related technologies like virtual reality (VR) and nanorobotics are becoming more intelligent to help guide humans through all manner of complex processes. All of this and more is expected to impact a wide range of industries, including healthcare, manufacturing, retail, finance, and government services.

The move toward augmented humans is also poised to enter the commercial platform stage. Kyocera recently introduced three prototype models designed to enhance perception, cognition, and motor skills so as to improve human presence and interaction. The line consists of:

  • A walk sensing and coaching system, which uses wearable sensors to improve posture and stride;
  • A physical avatar that enhances remote interaction through more natural audio and video communication;
  • An auditory augmentation device that features applications like instant playback for improved cognition and memory, like when you miss the boarding announcement for your flight.

The platforms were developed at Kyocera’s Future Design Laboratory, which aims to promote safer, more prosperous living through technology that supports human augmentation. The company says the systems can improve operations across a wide range of industries, including healthcare, manufacturing, and even entertainment. They could also lead to new levels of human experience and interaction.

The combined power of artificial, digital intelligence, and natural, biological intelligence can improve all manner of functions far beyond what either can accomplish on their own, says Gaurav Tewari, founder and managing partner of Omega Venture Partners. Jobs like fraud detection and risk assessment, for example, require the combination of vast data ingestion and analysis with intuitive analysis supported by unwritten rules and deep insight into the human psyche. In healthcare, their combined talents are already improving drug discovery, clinical trialing, and the development of specialized treatment plans. And in the world of commerce, buyers and sellers stand to benefit by using AI to make choices that are right for themselves.

Tewari also argues that companies deploying AI as a means to help workers, not replace them, are getting far better returns on their investments and are outperforming their competitors by significant margins. As technology evolves, the workplace should see far more opportunities for human-AI cooperation than competition.

The Bottom Line

Without a doubt, there will be friction during this evolution. Some jobs will, in fact, fade into obsolescence, just like the elevator operator and door-to-door vacuum salesman. But ultimately, AI is no different from any other technology in that it helps people become better at what they do.

While past advancements allowed us to discover new lands, build large structures, and set foot on another planet, AI will help us on a more fundamental level: to think, to create, and to imagine.

Yes, any technology has the capacity to harm or to be used for harm. AI does not change that. But it does offer the chance to accomplish what many have been trying to achieve for generations: to elevate the human species to overcome the hardships of life.

Science has made tremendous progress on that front over the past two centuries, usually with technologies that seemed threatening at the time. It would be a shame to stop now because we cannot see how much better we could become with just a little help.

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Arthur Cole

Arthur Cole is a freelance technology journalist who has been covering IT and enterprise developments for more than 20 years. He contributes to a wide variety of leading technology web sites, including IT Business Edge, Enterprise Networking Planet, Point B and Beyond and multiple vendor services.