Jun 15, 2020

A Brave New World

The AI revolution has long been predicted – and feared. But what does this new technology have in store for Ireland?

Dylan Furdyk for The University Times
Patrick O'Donoghue Magazine Editor

With every turn of the technological wheel, we always return to the same questions. Do the changes hand more power over to the already powerful and away from ordinary people? How will new technology affect our relationships and friendships? What do our politicians need to do to protect us from the dangers of these new discoveries?

Now, as we stand at the brink of the mass introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) and of witnessing brand new forces of automation being introduced to the workplace, we find ourselves confronted once again by derivatives of these fundamental questions. Are we approaching a job-pocalypse and the age of the robot in which human labour is surplus to requirements in many instances?

Ireland will not avoid such difficult questions.


The Emerald Isle has been touted as a top talent hub for AI in recent years. Its highly educated workforce and investment and research friendly environment puts it at the cutting edge of the coming revolution.

The Dock, Accenture Ireland’s centre for R&D and Global Innovation, has one of the most valid claims to be a prominent indicator of Ireland’s growing status as a leader in the field of AI.

Rory Timlin, analytics and AI director at The Dock, says in an email that “AI is a real focus for The Dock. Accenture Labs has a team here who are exploring a number of strands of applied research, looking at areas including Computational Creativity, Knowledge Discovery, Explainable AI, Algorithmic Bias and Workforce Intelligence”.

“Most of the key products we are working on are Advanced Analytics and AI-based applications in areas that include drug discovery, supply chain optimisation, security and public safety.”

Timlin makes clear that these fresh injections of AI are being applied in the here and now, and that it is likely that the further integration of these technologies by businesses is an inevitability for Ireland.

Are we approaching a job-pocalypse and the age of the robot in which human labour is surplus to requirements in many instances?

“In a recent Accenture survey”, he says, “73 per cent of global organisations report piloting or adopting AI in one or more business units. We understand the situation in Ireland to be broadly similar”.

The Dock’s long-term vision of society is one that embraces AI and the construction of a new world while protecting people from the more insidious sides of AI.

“Companies achieve more when human creativity and judgement are coupled with the speed and scale of AI, so the potential is huge”, he says.

“At the same time, AI should benefit users, communities and society at large, guided by core principles that help deliver desired outcomes while engendering trust. Fundamentally, the AI algorithms need to be built to align with the overarching goals of humans, and as long as that happens, there will be benefits to society and economy.”

This new harmony that Timlin describes between human and machine intelligence reinforces the point that although the functions and purposes AI can be programmed to operate with are deterministic, the end to which we use the tech remains a matter for society to decide upon and is far from a foregone conclusion.

Notwithstanding the groundbreaking work being done at The Dock, however, does this island’s progress lose some of its apparent lustre when placed in the context of goings-on elsewhere? The companies that have set up shop in Ireland means there is plenty to get excited about, according to Timlin.

“In particular, some of the leading implementers of AI are larger internet and application service providers who have operations here, for example, Google, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. In addition, a number of large tech companies such as Microsoft, IBM and Amazon, have significant technical footprints here.”

The Dock is home to some of Ireland’s most cutting-edge AI research.

Timlin adds that SMEs are also playing a role in the burgeoning technological revolution alongside the multinational heavyweights pushing things forward: “In addition to, and in certain cases arising out of spin-offs from the above, there is an increasingly vibrant Irish SME and start-up space centred on AI application. All of the above give critical mass and dynamism to the AI field in Ireland making Ireland an attractive environment for AI tech development.”

However, others are more sceptical of Ireland’s credentials and a lot more hesitant to assert Ireland’s right to claim such heady status. Simon Cocking, senior editor of Irish Tech News, believes an air of caution before submitting to the hype is necessary. He tells me: “Many would say Canada are at the bleeding edge, also China, South Korea, Japan, all excelling – so yes: happy to bang the drum for Ireland, but ‘top talent hub for AI’ seems a little premature. Or rather Ireland is a small place and is also trying to position itself as a world leader in many fields and I’d like to have harder evidence to assert the truth in that statement.”

With varying predictions concerning Ireland’s future role in this technological revolution, it is rational to accept that much is still unknown – and the rest is largely conjecture.

But, what copper-fastened ramifications will AI definitely bring? On this, Cocking takes a pragmatic stance, urging us to take steps to future-proof our professions and everyday lives so that we can begin to embody the new mantra of economic and social survival – adapt, adapt again, and keep adapting. To do this, Cocking advises: “Focus on the creative and value-added aspects of what you can bring to your profession. Be smart, willing to keep learning, upskill, and moving with the times. In many ways this is the same as it ever was: no career is for life anymore and people may certainly be working in many jobs and even many careers going forwards.”

These new rules reflect the fluid world around us: that less and less will be fixed and permanent, and to expect the unexpected. Cocking bolsters his advice, saying: “It’s pretty accurate to assert that over 50 per cent of jobs done in the future will be ones that we don’t even have titles for yet – so just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not going to play out that way.”

I ask Cocking if he thinks the common concern that AI may steal jobs from vast swathes of ordinary people is legitimate. Cocking says that the opposite is the case and that the revolution will, in fact, be more likely to lead to upskilling and greater fulfillment, as workers are pushed out of dull, manual lines of work and into more purposeful careers.

Companies achieve more when human creativity and judgement are coupled with the speed and scale of AI, so the potential is huge

“AI removes elements of people’s jobs. When they brought in ATMs it did not reduce numbers working in banks. It actually increased numbers, but they worked delivering other services.”

“So, the humans moved up the workchain and left handing out money – a repetitive replicable task to ‘AI’, i.e ATMs. It is never a straight substitution. When calculators became widespread, we didn’t fire all our mathematicians, did we? Same with PCs and laptops. It didn’t mean that we fired all the humans: they instead moved into new roles that hadn’t existed before.”

Despite somewhat simplistically glossing over the painful human cost of redundancies, Cocking uses historical precedent to flesh out his optimistic point of view: “We no longer send children to work in mines or factories: 98 per cent less people work on the land now than used to in the pre-19th century but we don’t have all those people unemployed now that they no longer work in farms.”

“They went on to work in industry. Then, the next industrial revolution displaced these workers into new jobs that didn’t exist previously.”

“If you put AI in the context of removing hard, brutal jobs and moving humans higher up the work and food chains, how can that be bad?” he asks. “Who regrets not having to work in the pits anymore and dying underground? People are living much much longer than 50-100 years ago and with higher quality of lives overall. Yes, there are bad things in pockets around the world but, overall, all trends are up.”

Trade unions will inevitably be on the other side of Cocking’s argument – they will be more pessimistic and worried about job losses than industry is. Greg Ennis, divisional organiser of SIPTU’s Manufacturing Division, believes a strong trade union voice can deliver a just transition for workers and will be pivotal in striking a new deal that will minimise the harm that could otherwise be done to labour relations in the absence of steadfast trade union representation.

He is mindful of a trade union’s duties to prepare its members for the changes coming down the tracks and – above all – to fight to protect them from any negative externalities.

“The key to this is that when you’re in unionised employment, most employers rather than have conflict and issues will flag changes in advance. So, you sit down and you engage because you can’t stop technology. However, you can adapt to maximise the benefits from such change.”

“Now, the reality is there is no doubt that automation will cost millions of jobs across the world, as we move forward. There is no doubt about that. However, in organised employment, you have the chance to sit down and engage with the employer and talk about reskilling, retraining, rather than just allowing it to become a redundancy situation because this machine or this robot is going to do what you used to do.”

“What happens in non-unionised employment is the employer will walk in and say: ‘Listen, we’ve got a new robot or a new machine and it’s putting lids on bottles, which you used to do. So sorry, we’ve no more work for you. Good luck.’ So, the unions are going to be key in all of that.”

When calculators became widespread, we didn’t fire all our mathematicians, did we?

Ennis argues that one of the main reasons the mass rollout of AI isn’t ubiquitous quite yet in workplaces both at home and abroad is the unwillingness of employers to adopt new methods of production whilst cheaper ones still exist. Illustrating this point, he draws on his knowledge of the industrial relations environment in the now-defunct firm NEC Semiconductors Ireland, an offshoot of the multinational Japanese electronics company that shut down its Meath plant in 2006 due to rising production costs in Ireland.

Ennis explains how a historical example like this can help to elucidate the mindset of employers which will ultimately govern how, when and why AI will be deployed on a wider basis: “The standards of living in Ireland comparable to those in the Far East, for example, are and were that much higher.”

“That’s because we had to negotiate good terms and conditions, and we had good terms and conditions, but then the reality dawns on the employer that: ‘Listen, I can get this product made for $2 in Taiwan and retain €15 per hour to get it made in Ireland’ and you lose out. So, that is an issue.”

“And, I think that’s one of the reasons, maybe, why artificial intelligence hasn’t been as quick to come in, because employers, unfortunately, can get products made in poorer parts of the world, use cheap labour, rather than paying millions for artificial intelligence.”

Another reason why it has, perhaps, not aroused the kind of enthusiasm required for it to become a priority for employers is its reliability, according to Ennis.

He uses a trip to Singapore to speak at the International Transport Workers’ Federation Conference, as an example: “We were brought on a tour on these driverless buses that they were trialling in Singapore at the time. Now, like anything artificial intelligence is not a perfect science because basically the driverless buses were set up to follow a visual map but when the map was changed, they no longer realised where they were and they stopped.”

“So, they had to reprogramme them every so often and that was something that was a concern to them. Likewise, the same situation when I was in Canada, in the heavy snow, and these driverless buses couldn’t function because they did not recognise particular milestones on their journeys and they would stop. And these are problems that were being experienced as recently as 2018.”

Although Ennis is not saying these problems couldn’t be ironed out, he is highlighting the potential risks to employers in switching with alacrity to new technology without guaranteeing its reliability. As long as technical glitches continue to be recorded, it’s clear that AI will be undermined by disincentive, especially in the realm of transport.

Ennis affirms the realism of the trade-union movement and its readiness to embrace change, on the condition that certain standards are upheld. For him, trade unions have to focus on working with it rather than against it. That means focusing on reskilling and retraining.

“AI in certain industries will become much more dominant. In the medical sector we already see signs of it in every hospital we go into.”

“Nowadays, some of the automation and artificial intelligence there is incredible, with regards to what these machines and lasers can do for surgery, for example, which, in some cases, are even on autopilot.”

“So, it is the future. It is inevitable. The trade unions and SIPTU are not luddites: we see this coming.”

Some, however, are looking past the workplace to society and the structure of the economy itself. Aaron Bastani, co-founder and contributing editor of left-wing media organisation Novara Media and author of Fully Automated Luxury Communism, falls firmly into this camp. At its core, Bastani’s overview rests on the proposition that in crisis there is always opportunity, and it is in this light that we must conduct our appraisal of what AI and automation will mean for younger generations.

Aaron Bastani says that in the midst of current crises, there is an opportunity to build a new – and better – society.

“Younger people tend to be more alert to the fact that the early-21st century is a period of crisis”, he says. “It’s a period where we have unrivalled inequality, we have the climate crisis, we have things like demographic aging down the horizon, we’ve had a problem with our economic model since 2008.”

“So, there are all these problems, and I know it’s a cliché to say we live in an era of crisis, but what my book tries to say is that the flip side of all of this is something better, something new. Whether it’s efficiency improvements in renewable energy, whether it’s machine learning, whether it’s synthetic biology – responsible for mapping the human genome.”

In other words, there is hope.

“We have all these crises but at the same time we have the basis over the next 20 to 30 years to build up a wholly different type of economy – and machine learning, automation is a big part of that.”

“You know, people are saying Jeff Bezos will be the first trillionaire, so why does a world where trillionaires exist make any more sense than a world where we only work ten hours a week? The answer is it’s about political choices.”

Delving deeper into what concrete political choices he thinks could be taken to realise these opportunities for increased leisure time. I ask Bastani where he stands on the issue of universal basic income (UBI), a nearby issue intersecting with developments in AI that has become a hot potato for the left of late.

Bastani prefers universal basic services (UBS), in which citizens are given access to a range of public service – such as free public transport, free healthcare, free education – provided for by the government, instead of being handed €1,000 every month, which he argues will probably end up in the pockets of the rich property owners either way.

So, there are all these problems, and I know it’s a cliché to say we live in an era of crisis, but what my book tries to say is that the flip side of all of this is something better, something new

“If you have UBI in the context of a rentier economy where asset ownership is really one of the primary axes of power, it’s going to be quite limited.”

However, with universal basic income only a fledgling item on the political agenda, let alone universal basic services, what does Bastani believe will be the agent of such revolutionary social and economic change? Who or what this agent will be, he concedes, is at best nebulous, but that an agent of transformation will step into the fray at some point in the near future, he maintains, can be reasonably assumed.

I ask Bastani if the ambition of Fully Automated Luxury Communism is destined to be a perennially vain one if the ownership of these means of production is not transferred from private to public hands. He agrees. But, who or what will be the agent to make this happen?

“The biggest weakness of the book”, he says, “and I acknowledged it at the time I was writing it but I didn’t pretend otherwise because there is no easy answer, is what’s the agent of change in all of this?

Bastani puts his money on the working class.

“The issue is, of course, identifying how that agent for change is going to articulate itself and leverage demands in a 21st century way.”

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the direction of Bastani’s analysis, he is grappling with the questions AI is throwing up. As he notes, how the future shaped by AI will open up before us and what it will look like will be determined, principally, by political decisions.

Sign Up to Our Weekly Newsletters

Get The University Times into your inbox twice a week.