By Dr Chris Edmond
I WAS reminded this week of a famous comparison between two similar pictures. The first shows Fifth Avenue in New York City in the year 1900. The picture is dominated by horse-drawn carriages, with one solitary car – this was eight years before Henry Ford introduced the Model T, and cars remained a novelty at the time.
The second picture shows the same road in the year 1913. Gone are the horses, to be replaced entirely by motor cars.
It is a very simple but powerful illustration – in the space of only 13 years the world had been transformed, having been dominated by horse-based transport for the previous 3,000 years. Imagine you were sitting in the New York government offices in 1895, planning the transport system or some other area of the economy. Would you have been ready for the change?
I suspect we may be on the edge of a similarly ground-breaking disruption to our accepted way of life.
I am, of course, talking about artificial intelligence and ChatGPT – the generative AI engine now owned by Microsoft. I wasn’t sure exactly how to explain ChatGPT, so I asked it to introduce itself:
‘Meet ChatGPT: the AI language model taking the world by storm. Developed by OpenAI, it understands and generates human language like never before. With a continuously growing database, ChatGPT can answer a vast array of questions and provide personalised responses. Its creators highlight its potential to enhance education and facilitate cross-cultural communication. In short, ChatGPT represents a new era in artificial intelligence that promises to revolutionise how we interact with technology and each other.’
Perhaps I might just save time and ask ChatGPT to write all of my future columns?
Glib comments aside, we are on the cusp of a revolution in work and technology. The last time I felt like this was 1998 – I was at university studying computer science when Google first launched their web search. People easily forget how revolutionary Google was, demonstrated these days in the use of the verb ‘to Google’. I went on to study artificial intelligence and machine learning, but could still never explain how Google returned results that were so much faster and more accurate than any other search tool.
Now general artificial intelligence has the potential to be so much more disruptive than Google and the wider internet ever was. A recent letter from the Future of Life Institute, signed by many technology leaders, warned:
‘Contemporary AI systems are now becoming human-competitive at general tasks, and we must ask ourselves: Should we let machines flood our information channels with propaganda and untruth? Should we automate away all the jobs, including the fulfilling ones? Should we develop non-human minds that might eventually outnumber, outsmart, obsolete and replace us? Should we risk loss of control of our civilisation?’
The authors of the letter call for a six-month moratorium on further training of AI systems, to allow for the governance structures and associated thinking to catch up. However, there doesn’t seem to be any sign of that with Microsoft readying to launch Copilot, an AI-assistant that will be present in all their Office 365 applications – AI is coming to every PC, in every office, very soon.
So how do I think this revolution will affect Jersey? Well, we have a knowledge-based economy, centred around our status as an international finance centre. We also have a tax system based around individual income tax – 87% of income tax receipts in 2021 were from individuals. And overall income taxes make up around two-thirds of the total government income.
And there can be no doubt that knowledge-based working is about to change – whether that is writing a business policy, giving health advice, developing a financial trade, writing contracts or a new piece of code. Where currently there are five staff doing a job, we might need one or two in the future. AI is that transformative.
And it’s going to have a huge, difficult-to-manage impact on our economy, tax system, education system and more. What happens to the income tax take when AI is doing much of the work rather than people? And what will those people do instead?
What AI cannot do, at least yet, is the human side of our work – building relationships, managing conflict, motivating, influencing, collaborating and sharing a vision. So surely now is the time to focus on the value of these human qualities – in our education system and in our work?
Is Jersey ready to respond? I read in this newspaper last week the comments of Zac Lewy, a prominent businessman and investor. Mr Lewy was calling for Jersey to develop a bold vision with joined-up thinking, and to avoid ‘incrementalism’. The world is changing whether we like it or not – there can be no better time for such a call.
Dr Edmond is the founder and medical director of WorkHealth (CI) Ltd, a dedicated Jersey-based occupational health provider. He is also a director at Jersey Sport and Jersey Recovery College, and adviser to the Jersey Community Foundation. He writes in a personal capacity.