A colleague asked about my plans; the next step in my professional and academic endeavour. In response I told him my focus was on manufacturing automation, applying machine learning to manufacturing to make Nigeria more productive, reduce human interference in the manufacturing process. That last statement prompted a strong rebuke from him, screaming that is a terrible idea, making people jobless.
When we look at applying computers, machines in general, to make everyday life better, people overlook the progress being made but rather quickly see massive layoffs with machines taking over human jobs. To address this concern, we ought to understand that man and machine excel at fundamentally different tasks, so their strengths could be leveraged in a complementary way instead of seeing us compete against each other. Why should we sacrifice productivity and stifle progress so that man can undertake what a machine can do faster with less risk of bodily harm, and even much more accurately. Man can then apply his own skill at what he is best at, that machines cannot do. So, what are these things?
The other day, my wife wanted to buy me an Amazon gift card and have it delivered to my email address. As soon as she placed the order, her account was blocked, I didn’t get the gift card I coveted. The transaction was obviously flagged as suspicious by the Amazon (AI) system. Why was this logical? Prior to that order she only purchased Kindle books on her account, gift cards are a common vehicle for internet fraud, and hmm, the IP address she was operating from was Nigeria. Gift cards, suspicious transaction, and Nigeria are not the best ingredients put together.
A human cannot possibly monitor all transactions on Amazon in real time so it makes perfect sense for a machine to be put in charge of that; leveraging their strengths. Now, there were predefined steps she had to follow to regain access to her account, this involved providing the OTP sent to her via SMS, entering the expiring date for her payment card on file. All these she did multiple times but we still ended up where we started, a futile cycle, if you may. For some reasons the AI application was not convinced. With her account locked she could not chat customer service from her account so I tried to help. I fired up my Amazon app, looked for anything that said customer service and the chat began. Damn, it was an annoying AI bot chatting with me, anything not solving my problem at this time triggered my annoyance. But again, the chat bot is also logical, and is common place these days. Lots of people would want to contact customer service, sometimes for trivial (annoying) issues (😊). For issues that occur all the time, the chat system has some predefined solution, so rather than having humans tied down to repeat same solution to maybe hundreds of thousands of people, just have a machine do that.
The computer does not complain about doing the boring, repetitive work, that is what they excel at. The problem was, it wasn’t solving my problem. I had to learn the trick of triggering the chat bot to hands off and transfer me to a real human, who can read what I have to say, process it and make meaning out of it; something humans are better at. Well, in this case the human wasn’t that much helpful, he gave me a link which would have been a bit helpful if it was my account that had issues, since I was the one logged it. The link was for folks who suspect suspicious activity from their account, maybe a third party gained access. Well, it took two weeks and several phone calls – transferred from customer service to IT – with my wife having to read out the serial numbers of her Amazon devices for the human at the other end of the call to be convinced and the account was unblocked. Sure, I can’t ask her to send me a gift card again.
Another experience was when I tried to open a new bank account. With the restriction on international transactions with cards dominated in Naira, I was searching for a bank with a higher monthly cap. Usually I hate opening bank accounts so there had to be a very good reason. I also dislike going into the banking hall so I was trilled to discover I could actually open the account myself from home. Cool, I get my scanner ready and prepared every document required. Uploading, filling, clicking, I progressed till I was informed of a mismatch in the name I registered my Bank Verification Number with (BVN) and the name on my ID, in this case my driver’s licence. I cursed the foolish AI application, but I also understood what the issue was. I like keeping things simple, a design rule, so I mostly use my last name and my first name; that is what I have on my BVN and my other bank accounts. However, for my IDs I try to squeeze in all my names, just in case. My IDs would usually have my last name, first name, middle name, and other name; all four names 😉.
If the Artificial Intelligence account opening application was actually intelligent, I believe, it should have noticed that the first two name on my ID were actually the names with my BVN. I concluded a human would surely do better, a human can look at my ID and use common sense to know that it’s me. Besides the BVN had other features such as my photograph and biometric; couldn’t the AI application had fallen back to that rather than counting the names? Even AI applications have to be intelligently built.
The next day I go into a branch of the bank to physically open the account. A smart dude explains to me that he was going to use an app for the account opening process while clutching his phone. I smiled and told him I already tried to but the issue was the machine couldn’t verify that my ID was me due to the so-called name mismatch. He told me he would have to open it manually then, but I had to go to the court and swear an affidavit that I am me. Damn, can’t a human just look the ID and know, I have other bank accounts, why should it be different this time. He politely told me it was the bank policy that I get an affidavit if an account was being opened manually. I sure would not get an affidavit to prove I am me, I already know that, if the bank can’t figure that out too…. I went back home, wrote the centralised customer care at the bank’s HQ explaining everything. A reply came in after two days informing me that the “names on my ID need to tally with the names on the BVN”, in plain English, No deal.
Computers are fast, very fast, they can analyse humongous datasets probably at the speed of light, they don’t need fancy diner on motivating words to excel at their tasks. If a computer in a cluster breaks down, it can seamlessly be replaced and the world moves on. Well defined logical tasks no matter their volume can be thrown at the computer and it gets to work immediately. Robots can go into environments that would be too corrosive for the human lungs, an AI system can keep watch over a perimeter wall 24/7 without requiring sleep. All these are strengths of the machine. As for humans our key strength is emotion, empathy, reasoning, big picture thinking, and other things we are good at. However, we need to sleep, eat, get medical attention, and believe me one human is not a perfect replacement for another. Imagine being handed a very tall stack of documents to sort out, your mind begins to process; this is huge, when will I finish this, the sort of thing a machine will not think of. However, for that last import analysis, big picture thinking, considering the whole sphere, we haven’t built the machine for that yet. Rather than breaking human backs, carrying out repetitive job, and even doing it poorer than a machine would, why not delegate that to the machine so the amazing human mind and back can think up and build the next amazing episode of our existence.