An Interview with Author, Technologist, and Entrepreneur Byron Reese

Byron Reese, author of “The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity,” blends a deep understanding of emerging technologies with profound knowledge of psychology, culture, and business. When he’s not writing books, Reese is CEO of technology research firm Gigoom. He has also founded multiple non-profit organizations.

As “The Fourth Age” clearly illustrates, Reese is a big picture thinker when it comes to how artificial intelligence is changing today’s business landscape. We caught up with him recently to discuss how AI may be impacting middle market companies like yours.

How do you define the term “artificial intelligence”?
Reese: It means two very different things. The first is what’s called artificial general intelligence or AGI. It’s a computer able to do everything a person can. It's creative, can learn and adapt. AGI is a technology we don’t have yet and don’t know how to make.

Narrow artificial intelligence, which we do have, is a computer program we teach to do one particular thing. It could be a very simple thing like your sprinkler system, which comes on when the grass is dry. We’re now teaching computers to do narrow things like identify spam email and route me through rush-hour traffic.

How big might be the impact of artificial intelligence?
Reese: Research groups estimate what the eventual impact is going to be in the tens of trillions of dollars over the course of a decade or two. To put that number into context, the consumer internet is about 25 years old. It’s had a 25 trillion dollar impact on the economy to date. AI would dwarf that because all the internet does is connect computers, while AI effectively makes everybody smarter. So if I were to guess, it's probably 10 times the internet’s impact, or $250 trillion, over the next 20 years. So ‘big’  is the answer here.

What do you suggest middle market leaders do as they consider adopting AI?
Reese: This is a very accessible technology. We have good toolkits now. You no longer need a data scientist to do "real AI" and the process is simple. You can do the first step in an hour or two. You get your management team together and ask, ‘What are all the business problems that in theory computers could solve for us?’ Break those down into three groups. There's insight generation, how can AI help us understand our business better? There's task automation for routine, repeatable processes. Then there's conversational technologies like chatbots for engagement.

Next, make an inventory of all the data you have available inside your enterprise and outside of it that could inform solutions. Then figure out what specific technologies you would need in order to apply that data to your problems. Then you shop around for platforms and toolkits. Finally, begin lots of small projects. You're trying to show proof of value. There are probably many areas of your business that you can make 10% better by applying data to them.

Will robots or AI be taking jobs from middle market company employees? How will these technologies be impacting the future of work?
Reese: There's no way this technology can cause massive unemployment. We know this because in 250 years of this nation’s history, with the exception of Great Depression, unemployment has never been more than five to ten percent.  Even though we invented electricity, assembly lines, steam power, and other tech, you didn't even see a wiggle in the unemployment numbers. What happens in 100% of cases is that people use new technology to make themselves more productive.

Why is looking at tasks a better way to imagine a future than looking at jobs or job categories?
Reese: There was a fine piece of research from Oxford a few years ago by Frey and Osborne saying 47% of the tasks we do in our jobs can be automated. That's not a surprise. Roofers used to hammer nails, now they use a nail gun, but we still have roofers. There are very few jobs that are actually going to be completely eliminated by technology. The OECD did a study showing that 9% of jobs in the next 20 years will vanish.

 What type of human work will be “safest” in the future?
Reese: There’s a test on my website called "Will a robot take your job?" and it asks you different questions like, would two people do your job exactly the same way? If the answer is yes, that job can probably be automated. Does it require mobility? Computers are bad at that. Do you have to manage people? Computers are bad at that. Does it involve creativity or empathy? Computers are bad at that. People will still be needed to perform these higher-level functions.

“The Fourth Age” is very philosophical. Why do you think that approach is necessary for understanding where technology is going?
Reese: Many people believe issues about artificial intelligence are inherently beyond their understanding because they're not technical. They hear Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg say something and they assume, "Well, those smart people must be right." But the fundamental questions around technology don’t have anything to do with semiconductors or devices. They have to do with what it means to be human, how the human brain and human mind work, what are we able to do, and are we, in the end, machines?

Many tech people in Silicon Valley largely believe that people are indeed machines, and if that’s the case, then someday we'll make a mechanical person. The book isn’t about a specific technology, but about how we should be thinking about technology and humanity.

What else would you like to say to middle market leaders about AI?
Reese: AI is a really simple idea. We take a lot of data about the past, analyze it, and make predictions about the future. You can use AI most effectively in places where the future is like the past. That's why a computer program can tell what a cat looks like because what a cat looks like doesn’t really change from day to day.

I wouldn’t be intimidated by this technology. It's straightforward and therefore, as a business leader, you should be able to have good instincts about where you're going to apply it to your business challenges. Artificial intelligence gives you the power to make better decisions and you never want to take a wait-and-see attitude on how to make better decisions. I would encourage middle market leaders to start where you are and not be overwhelmed by all the jargon around AI.

Listen to "Author Byron Reese On AI and Business" on Spreaker.