Sophie Hackford, futurologist and co-founder of data and AI firm 1715 Lab, was asked to speak at a conference last year – but was then told she was going to be replaced by a robot.
“I got this email last year,” explains Hackford. “It essentially said, hi Sophie, we were very excited getting you to speak on stage but we decided to get Sophia, the robot, to speak instead, so I can’t pay your fee. Thanks very much, goodbye.”
Hackford wasn’t overly disappointed at being rejected in favour of an android replacement, however. “I was quite interested in how it made me feel. Of course the question about jobs will probably be one the most popular questions [about the role of AI in] work over the next few years,” she says. “It might be a little counterintuitive because I realised my exact job was being taken by a robot – a robot that shares my name.”
It is a question Hackford gets asked a lot, she reveals. And answering it, she believes that, while certain employment categories will be under threat from new technologies, what people should really be focusing on is upskilling.
She sees the world of work changing drastically, and believes avatars such as her own will increasingly be used in the workplace. AI companies such as Soul Machines, she points out, are already using technology to come up with digital versions of us. She thinks that, in the future, these chatbots will be sent into negotiations to make choices and decisions on our behalf.
“Our thoughts are being processed as much by computers as they are our own cortex,” she says. “It forces us to ask, what is intelligence? Do we have the monopoly on it? Do we mind if we share that with something else? Where is that blurring happening between human beings and machines?
“A lot of the intellectual, decision-making tasks are going to be outsourced to avatars or digital ambassador versions of us,” predicts Hackford, pointing out that human behaviour, as modelled by algorithms, is already happening and is becoming increasingly accurate. “Avatars will be used at work. I will ask my digital avatar to collaborate with yours in a particular project. There is a MIT project called Borrowers Identity, [where] you can borrow the identity of someone super-smart like Einstein to solve a particular problem on your behalf.”
Hackford thinks that the future could hold the possibility of fully autonomous companies, run by algorithms, which people can buy skills and services from. There are big questions as to what this could actually mean, however. “If you are a director of a company you have rights like freedom of speech,” she says. “Will we give those same rights to the algorithms that run those companies?”
She also suggests that avatars could help out in other ways – heads of states or CEOs, for example, could use them in succession planning to help the next person along with the role. “This is a really interesting concept we need to think about quite deeply,” she says.
Satellites are another area that could be affected – satellite data is already being used to predict areas such as consumer confidence. For example, she explains, satellite imagery from the car parks of US department store JCPenney predicted the retailer was going to close stores after data showed a fall in cars visiting branches.