Pivot Presents : AI & Robotics – An Interview with Stowe Boyd, research lead, future of work with Gigaom

Author: Matt Godson

Matt:   Joining me here today is Stowe Boyd, research lead, future of work with Gigaom and a panelist on the forthcoming Pivot conference in NYC on the topic of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics.  Stowe, welcome.

Stowe:  It’s good to be here.

Matt:   So let me start by asking you which sectors do you think will be the first to benefit from the advances that we are seeing in robotics and artificial intelligence?

Stowe: Well, it depends on what you mean by “benefits”, I guess, because we’re going to see wholesale changes in many sectors.  I guess the earliest examples of that are going to be in areas where artificial intelligence and algorithmic impacts will have in certain functional areas across the board in a lot of hi-tech and manufacturing businesses.  That’s historically where AI has had the biggest impact in the past and is probably going to continue.

Matt:   Some people believe that in the future everything that can be automated will be automated. Non-skilled jobs lacking in “human contribution” will be replaced by automation when the economics are favorable. Do you share this view, does your research back this up, and what would this mean for business and society if the foundation of our economy – essentially meaning labor – comes under threat?

Stowe: In 1964 Isaac Asimov, the famous science fiction writer, wrote a piece about the 1964 World’s Fair and he contrasted it with the 2014 World’s Fair which is this year and in looking ahead,  he said that basically in the future robotics would have  advanced to where people would live lives of being machine tenders.  I honestly think that (with some proviso for extremely creative work) that nearly everything that can be, will be, automated.  There’s been some recent research by a pair of professors at Oxford that analyzed in very fine detail the nature of occupations that humans currently fill, and determined that the great majority of them were likely to be achievable as targets for robotic and algorithmic intelligence in the next decade, let’s say.  So I think that’s interesting; however, computers cannot beat us at the game of Go yet, – it cannot be won by computers yet – so there’s clearly something that the programmers of those computers, those AIs haven’t achieved yet.  So there’s still unquantifiable skills that humans have that can’t be reproduced.

Matt:   Given that, what changes will need to be made to our education system to prepare for a future where automation and robotics become ubiquitous?

Stowe:  Well, to pursue the analogy of games, we now know that the best chess players in the world will be routinely beaten by chess programs but, if you play a different version of the game – there’s something called “freestyle chess” – in which people can use any means (ie talk to other friends, look things up in books, and refer to the output of computer programs) in order to play the best possible game of chess, freestyle chess paying teams will beat the best computer programs.  So one of the skills of the future is to learn how to be a “freestyler” – that is to use every means available to help you in the world of business for example, to pursue opportunities and confront challenges.  So as a result we need to shift the way we think about education, to train people to use every resource when doing their work (school work or work after school) and we don’t routinely teach people to do things that way.  So it represents monumental challenges for top to bottom rethinking of education.

Matt:   We are already seeing the advent of driverless cars. Do you think that we are seeing the last generation of driving workers – taxi operators and truckers for example. In 25 years, do you think these occupations will no longer exist?

Stowe: Well, it’s already starting, so I’ll say “yes” and then I’ll give proof.  We are already using driverless vehicles in very constrained places like, for example, we’ve been doing for a long time at airports – those driverless trains that shuttle people around.  We’ve been using driverless trucks in mining situations – very large trucks too – so we’ll see them starting in constrained settings – for example, long-haul trucking because the trucks could just go from one distribution point, onto a highway, off the highway and to another distribution point.  They would never have to get off and deal with the complexities of street traffic in a tight urban setting.  So we’ll see it in places like that first.

But ultimately, inevitably that will happen and, of course, there will be big impacts because right now the no 1 occupation for men in the United States is truck driver, so it’s a very large demographic that would be impacted.  We’ve confronted these types of changes in the past – you know, there used to be elevator operators, and then we put in button-driven elevators and all of a sudden these elevator operators, in general, had to go and find other types of work.  We had the same problem with typesetting. You name it – almost any job that has the word “operator” at the end of it is going to be one of the first to be impacted; but certainly the occupations associated with transport – if we can rethink transport just a little bit, it’s going to be changed very quickly; and you know, somebody like Uber will weather that storm because they’ll just have robotic cars running their algorithms instead of human drivers.

Matt:   So, from a human perspective, is it all doom and gloom? Don’t you think there will be new opportunities that will arise from the rise of AI and robotics Who do you think will be the winners in your opinion?

Stowe:  It’s really difficult to say. It’s such a transformative shift that it’s hard to determine.  Rule of thumb is: half of the winners in the future will be companies that are large and strong now and have made transitions and half of them will be upstarts that nobody expected to be there.  So people with lots of money and the ability to invest heavily are likely to be in a winning position in the future; so you have to look at someone like Google, Amazon, and maybe companies like Tesla – why not?  I mean, they’ve demonstrated their technological capacities. But I’m still looking for strange little upstarts to come from nowhere – some company we don’t know is building a semi-autonomous work platform for warehouses right now – could become an international giant in a decade.

Matt:  I think it’s a fascinating topic.  So, thank you so much for your time and I’m looking forward to seeing at Pivot this October.  Thanks again.

Stowe: Thank you for having me.

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