In a 1765 essay in honour of Descartes, Antione Leonard Thomas summed up Descartes’ first principle as “Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum”: I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.
The first attribute to define being human, in an attempt to depart from the (namely British) empiricist’s scientific outlook on humans is the inherently human capacity of self doubt. At no stage was being human correlated with knowledge. On the contrary the fundamental aspect of being human was based on the capacity to doubt. To think. Not to know.
To analyse such a line of thought in the light of the current technological progress in the field of Artificial Intelligence is intriguing. Without entering into ethical arguments in relation to technological advancement, the quest to create “human-like” machines could not be further than my philosophical ideology as to what it means to be human. And while technology continues to advance, sometimes as a result of, and other times in spite of human intervention, the human being continues to have the same needs, wants, desires, doubts and thoughts as he has had for the past 150,000 years.
My academic background is anything but technological. Whilst I have always had a fascination with technology my relationship with it has been to hover on the periphery where form meets function and to use it to improve the way I am executing a task whether this is work or leisure related. From booking flights, driving cars, writing documents, staying connected, and recording music to kindly asking our Google assistant to close the blinds and turn off the lights – my generation has embraced this peripheral relationship with technology where we can benefit from it without necessarily understanding it. And most of us are not scared of it. Until now.
This year has been and continues to be the year of the AI revolution. Arguably Open AI’s Chat GPT and DeepMind’s Gato started the tsunami and the space has spiralled into an exponential advancement of the technology. Microsoft and Google are moving fast to ensure advancement on the one hand and continued relevance on the other whilst both advocating caution in the space. I personally think that the advancement of AI will provide us with a change and a corresponding challenge which are even more dramatic than the change brought about with the dissemination of the internet. Within the next decade, we will not recognise the way we use the internet today and the way we used it for the past two decades. AI already has the potential to threaten the very existence of certain jobs: think of machines replacing humans on the production line with the industrial revolution. This is the same on a much larger scale. This is clerks, lawyers, researchers, accountants, programmers, coders, designers, engineers. The list is too long and as AI advances the list will grow even longer.
While AI can be defined as technological progress the pertinent and admittedly scary question is: how far off are we from artificial general intelligence (AGI)? AGI refers to a computer that is capable of understanding or learning any intellectual task that humans can. Naturally this means the system would be an autonomous system that surpasses humans at the majority of tasks we handle. The jury is still out on many aspects in this regard: will it ever be achieved, should we allow private companies to continue to develop AI with this aim in mind without ‘controlling’ such progress? The results of an “experiment gone wrong” could be devastating: as Ian Hogarth puts it in his article on the matter in the Financial Times dated April 13th 2023 “God-like AI could be a force beyond our control or understanding, and one that could usher in the obsolescence or destruction of the human race.” Hogarth (an investor in AI technology companies) explains that as computers continued to get more powerful, AI continued to progress exponentially and within the decade they have gone from recognising images to passing the US bar exam in the top ten percentile and telling you how to engineer a biochemical weapon.
So as a Management Consulting firm we have a massive challenge: do we allow the fear of being replaced to consume us while we keep our fingers crossed that the change is slower than anticipated? Or do we understand that the power of the advancement of technology can allow our clients and us to focus on what truly matters when running any business: high level strategy, decision making and the human aspect. In every business, there is (or rather there should be) a direct or an indirect dialogue with employees and with customers and very often the menial tasks threaten this relationship. Our clients do not only want advice when they come to our firm for legal, financial, strategic or consulting advice: our clients want us to listen. Our clients want us to understand. Our clients want us to nod in comprehension with our phones face down or out of sight. The hour a client spends with his advisor is so much more than an hour spent seeking advice. The fragrance in the office building, the smell of espresso, the indistinct sounds of co-workers in the background, the occasional joke, the sun shining through the blinds in the boardroom, the tap on the back, the feeling of having known your advisor for a decade: I feel confident in my knowledge that AGI will have a hard time getting there.
I will use AI to give me a rundown on the average profitability of a particular industry, to retrieve financials and KPIs, to look for sources, to develop hypotheses, to structure problems, to help with Excel and PowerPoint and so many other tasks which will boost my productivity. And this is exactly what we have all done with every other technology that has emerged in the past decades. While I perfectly understand the fear that “this is different” – and it is different – we have no option but to embrace the technology with open arms in full knowledge that the learning curve is steep but the rewards have the potential to be immense. I was too young to remember when the first spreadsheets made it to the accounting world in the eighties however I imagine they must have caused fear and insecurity among the accounting world that their work was being replaced: what in fact happened, and what will happen again with the advancement of AI is that the accounting profession will continue to develop: Communicating with clients, strategy, analysis and decision making will continue to replace hours previously spent on repetitive tasks. AI will assist accountants to make sense of vast amounts of information. AI will spot trends and patterns within seconds. Those who will make leaps and bounds in this space are those who recognise that a machine is as efficient as the context you put in the questions you ask of it: so while I appreciate that not all of us can study to become Prompt Engineers I strongly recommend to everyone wanting to use AI to their advantage to research prompting AI. The web is rife with sources.
Among all of the unknowns caused by advancement of technology as well as the aftermath of the pandemic, the work-place will continue to change. Our jobs will change, evolve and elevate themselves to newer heights spurred by the new threat that our industry risks obsolescence. So goes the old adage: we change or we die…
Chat GPT, in all probability, will rarely if ever have doubts. It will take a human to prompt machines to promote growth that is sustainable and inclusive.
At the very core of being human is the need to be surrounded by other similarly vulnerable humans. Being human is to be wrong about something and to laugh it off by saying “how silly of me”. So in the future, when a machine asks you what it means to be human, remember to reply with a simple “I doubt”. It will finish the sentence for you. And if you listen carefully you might even detect a hint of sarcasm.