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In March last year I wrote a couple of IT Matters articles, one about the progress in developing Quantum Computing and the other discussing the probability of a “Technological Unemployment Bomb” which has been forecast by some very credible academics due to the rapid rise of Artificial Intelligence technologies. The two technologies combined - Quantum Computing and Artificial Intelligence (AI) might be the catalyst for the displacement, by the year 2025, of around one-third of the jobs currently performed by people.



Progress in AI over the past year has been very impressive; Teslas and other vehicles with self-driving modes are being used on our roads now and becoming inexorably more capable; in January Amazon opened its first supermarket with no checkouts (and no checkout staff) - cameras in the supermarket watch you as you shop, detect what you buy and bill you accordingly; automated AI analysis of radiological images is being tested to detect some cancers, etc. All this has happened without the benefit of Quantum Computing, which is expected to substantially accelerate AI progress.


In parallel, the development of Quantum Computing has been astonishingly rapid. A year ago I wrote that academic researchers had succeeded in producing experimental 12-Qubit processors, IBM had a stable 5-Qubit processor, and a UK university team had worked out a potential method of stitching multiple small Quantum processors together to form a larger processor. Well that’s all old hat now - on Monday last week Google disclosed that they have engineered a 72-Qubit single-chip processor, which they call “Bristlecone” and are now testing it for accuracy. If it delivers the low error-rates of Google’s earlier experimental processors it will be a magnificent achievement and a momentous development in computing.


Current thinking is that “Quantum Supremacy”, the point when a Universal Quantum Computer will be able to out-perform a conventional super-computer (costing hundreds of millions of dollars) - will require a Universal Quantum Computer providing 49 Qubits. Google’s new experimental device is 72 Qubits on a single chip, and Google’s researchers have stated they are hopeful that it will able to demonstrate Quantum Supremacy - probably later this year. They may be right, or it may be that IBM, Microsoft or another of the major players in the race to produce a viable full-scale Universal Quantum Computer  has something up their sleeve and will stun the world of computing with proof of supremacy before Google - we’ll have to wait and see. Whoever wins this race will probably become the most valuable and powerful business in the world, for a while. 


More to the point, a crucial technology which will be an exponential accelerant to the development of AI systems has just made a massive, and largely unanticipated, stride which will make game-changing improvements in image processing, pattern matching, conversational speech and many aspects of “scientific” computing and AI a reality significantly sooner (and likely much cheaper) than previously expected. 


What does that mean for us? Driverless vehicles - lorries, taxis, buses, private cars, aircraft etc. are really going to happen, and soon. AI will replace Investment Managers, Radiographers, Lawyers and many other skilled professionals. Call centres in most industries will no longer need human workers. Warehousing and large retail businesses will similarly cease to need many of their staff. Humanoid room-service and chamber-maid robots will become affordable for larger hotels. Robot waiters, already popular as a novelty in China, will become commonplace in larger restaurant and cafe chains. Robot cleaners will invade hospitals, care homes, offices etc. 


Ouch. The development of a viable single-chip Quantum processor is going to enable all of this. Google’s announcement last week is, to my mind at least, far more significant than the development of the first microcomputers in the early 1970’s, and is going to change our lives much more and more rapidly. 


Needless to say, initial economic exploitation will be driven by large businesses who can afford the investment in skills and equipment to exploit human-replacement technologies in order to gain competitive advantage. Smaller businesses will follow on as new AI technologies become commoditised so that we can buy them “off the shelf” - “Hello, is that Alphabet Robotics Corp? This is Steve at the Surby Motel, I’d like to order two chamber-maid robots, three table waiting robots and one room service robot please”.


In 2014 the founder of Tesla, Elon Musk, expressed his concerns about AI saying: 


“I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. So we need to be very careful.”. “I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish.”


Dunno what he’s saying today, but I suspect it’s along the lines of “I told you so.”


Personally, I think there will be a consumer rebellion in some sectors. Amongst those who can afford it there will be a certain snobbery in patronising shops, restaurants and hotels which still employ real humans to serve their customers, and buying upmarket artisan goods made by real people. However just as the hotel industry is divided between the high-end establishments and the basic service offerings such as Travelodge and Premier Inn at half the price, most of us will vote with our wallets. On the other hand - driverless vehicles are much less likely to crash, and AI Radiologists will be faster, more consistent and likely more accurate than the best humans - so the snobs and the technophobes and the “people first” activists will still be looking to robotic service providers when their own welfare is a consideration.


Whatever - viable Quantum Computing, which is a keystone for everyday AI, has in the space of a year gone from being a medium-term goal to a here and now reality. The AI it enables will bring a new world of opportunities and challenges for businesses, governments, and society (us) - and the biggest challenges will be whether and how we regulate and control AI, and what we do with the people whose jobs it displaces.


On the techie side, computer scientists are working on the development of new “Quantum Proof” encryption algorithms which will enable us to keep our digital secrets safe when Quantum Computers can crack current crypto mechanisms. For those of us in business or government it’s probably time we started thinking and developing approaches for how we handle the emergence of Quantum-powered AI in our businesses, and in social strategy.


Law, regulation, society, government and business infrastructure all take time to change. Anyone building a hotel, supermarket, warehouse or hospital probably needs to be factoring the effects of AI and suitability for robotic workers right now - or they will find their new building is inhibiting their adoption of robotics within a decade. Think your business needs a new call-centre? Think again and build a data-centre. Motoring is the subject of many laws, most of which concern the behaviours of the vehicle driver - who will we prosecute when fully automated self-driving vehicles are involved in accidents? Who will be in charge of the self-driving car carrying its owner back from the pub? How will we cope with large-scale unemployment, how will we fund income support or universal basic income for our displaced workers? Will we even permit the use of AI and robotics to displace swathes of workers? Will we tax robotic workers? If we regulate or tax robotic and AI technologies used to displace human workers then how will we remain competitive versus other jurisdictions which impose fewer barriers to the use of AI? The strategic considerations for business and government are massive and complex.


In the past industrial revolutions the “Luddites” have been a vocal force concerned for their own futures, but each industrial revolution has, after a period of adjustment and rebalancing, seen displaced workers redeployed in new types of jobs and in new industries. Each of those transformations has spawned more human innovation but the capabilities of emerging AI, and the business economic case for it are, like the Quantum Computing which will power the new AI, so sophisticated that human employment will require a major step change in order for humans to compete. It may be that the sci-fi utopia of a leisured society is uncomfortably close to being realised - except for the geeks who will earn their fortunes making these new AI technologies.


I wish I had answers, I don’t. I have been a part of the last industrial revolution, developing and deploying technologies that have displaced many blue and white-collar workers with computerised systems to “improve efficiency”, and I know first hand that humans and society have struggled to keep up with the pace of change, but I think the coming AI revolution is going to astound us all with both its rapidity and scale. Humanity will muddle through, as it has in the past, but when we look back in a few years I think we will be able to say that the chaos started in the Google Quantum AI Research lab, Santa Barbara, California, on March 5th 2018.


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