Is Ireland braced for the approaching AI storm?

18 Feb 2019

Bloody Foreland in Donegal. Image: © Monica/

The only way to win at technological change like artificial intelligence is to stay ahead of it. And Ireland is doing just that, writes John Kennedy.

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Thanks to artificial intelligence (AI), we are in the midst of the biggest technological upheaval humanity has ever seen. It is both seminal and frightening.

If you really want a metaphor for the storm of change that is coming, check out this recent Bloomberg documentary Inside China’s High-Tech Dystopia which shows thousands of workers in Shenzhen assembling the latest smartphones.

‘Career changes and workforce transitions will be a feature of the future. This means that lifelong learning will become even more of an imperative for the workforce’

As workers diligently put the devices together to the highest standards, just yards away the best young engineers in China are putting together robots that would replace those very workers.

The thoughts of bots and robots stealing our jobs is a very real fear because it lends itself to the capitalist ethos of gaining better margins from efficiencies. But what about the people?

Well AI be damned

If humans are smart – and indeed we are – we must find a way to harness the capabilities of the machine age to augment ourselves and do everything better. Maybe instead of taking our jobs, can AI and machine learning be better employed to solve real and pressing problems? Such as finding a cure for cancer, or solving climate change instead of creating poverty.

It is tantalising and terrifying to think that computers could be better than humans. They are not, but in some ways they are. It takes millions of pieces of data to train a machine to learn to do a simple task that the neural power of the human brain can do in a micro-second, such as calculating the perfect arc to throw a ball through a hoop or process what the eye is seeing in real-time. But a machine can achieve higher levels of accuracy than a human and can work on a problem or learn for hours on end without sleep.

The real potential is humans and machines working together.

When we are talking about AI, we are quintessentially still talking about machine learning, defined by the Royal Society as: “The power and the promise of computers that learn by example.”

We’ve been working towards this goal as far back as the 18th century when, in 1763, Thomas Bayes set out a mathematical theory – Bayes’ theorem – which has since remained the central concept in most approaches to machine learning.

In 1950, Alan Turing asked: “Can machines think?” This question evolved into the Turing test in which a machine would be called intelligent if it could convince a person it was human. Today, lots of people are talking to what they think are other humans handling customer care over Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. But, in lots of cases, they are dealing with bots or pieces of software that are learning about them all the time.

The birth of the term ‘artificial intelligence’ is often attributed to computer scientist John McCarthy in 1955. A year later, Frank Rosenblatt’s perceptron used a rotary resistor (potentiometer) driven by an electric motor to take an input – such as the pixels of an image – and create an output such as a label.

In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue became the world’s first computer chess-playing system to beat a reigning champion. In 2011, IBM’s Watson won a game of the US quiz show Jeopardy. In 2016, AlphaGo, a system created by researchers at Google DeepMind, won four out of five matches against Lee Sedol, the world’s top Go player.

So AI and machine learning aren’t new concepts. The difference is we are reaching a point where the advances in computing power, devices and networks means we are at a seminal moment in humanity’s history where human and machine can work together. Hopefully in harmony.

The making of an AI island

Here in Ireland, it still hasn’t dawned on many people just how in step we are with the advances in AI. The fundamentals are there. Whether it is Intel supplying half of the world’s 14nm chips from Leixlip, Apple managing the global supply of iPhones from Cork, Google and Facebook handling a huge chunk of the world’s information from data centres in Dublin and Meath, to countless start-ups working on products of the future, AI is around us but invisible to us. If you carry a smartphone, drive a brand-new car or have a smart speaker in your kitchen, you are a node on a global network that is learning about you all the time.

Ireland truly is an AI island: Nora Khaldi’s Nuritas is using AI and genomics to produce healthy food; IBM in Ireland has a strategic focus on the Watson AI platform; Intel-owned Movidius is building future AI-based technologies to help devices think and see; Accenture has its largest AI R&D hub in Dublin; Veritas is empowering businesses to discover truth in information; and chipmaker Xilinx is powering the world of neural networks.

Additional companies that have an AI presence established in Ireland include: Siemens, Zalando, SAP, HubSpot, Deutsche Bank, Amazon Web Services, Salesforce, Ericsson, Dell EMC, Microsoft, Fujitsu, Mastercard, Nokia Bell Labs, Huawei, LogoGrab and Soapbox Labs, to name a few.

But if you think for a second we are free from the upheavals that will hit the world, you are wrong.

As many as 46,000 jobs could be lost to digital transformation in Ireland in the next five years alone, according to a recent report by the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs. Much of this disruption will result in changes to job roles and tasks performed by individuals rather than job losses.

Sectors most at risk are those normally associated with repetitive, manual tasks that can be replaced by automation, but the risk is not just limited to these. Those most at risk include agriculture, retail, transport and hospitality, and manufacturing.

There is a silver lining in the report in that more people will be employed in 2023 in Ireland than there were in 2018.

“Career changes and workforce transitions will be a feature of the future. This means that lifelong learning will become even more of an imperative for the workforce,” said the chair of the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs, Tony Donohoe.

Ireland can counter the threat of the AI age by staying ahead of the curve, working with machines but always looking to evolve and better ourselves mentally and professionally.

Machines will never be as good as humans, but if your job is about repetitive tasks and you fail to notice change, don’t be surprised if a bot will take your job some day. Always be learning.

Or, as my late dad used to say, “God only helps those who can help themselves.”

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years