Recently there’s been plenty of chatter in the news about bots from Microsoft’s gaffes with its Twitter bot, Taye to Industry 4.0 the public seems obsessed about the latest wave of bots. What’s striking in these discussions is regardless of whether you fear or love AI bots, our future with them seems inevitable.
Why the Bot hype?
People are excited about Bots, both physical and digital, because they are the next wave of industrial revolution.
Contrary to what we typically think of the Industrial Revolution with key figures like Thomas Edison and Alexander Bell, industrial revolutions are not defined by individual technological improvements, but changes in labor and distribution.
Perhaps the true start of the American Industrial Revolution can be traced back to a restless 21 year old. In the countryside of England, a young apprentice Samuel Slater, having vigorously studied the process of cotton spinning, headed West. At the time taking industrial designs from England to the United States was highly illegal. Fortunately for Slater he had a great memory. With a few wealthy investors from Rhode Island, he would assume the title of “The Father of the American Industrial Revolution,” or “Slater the Traitor,” depending on who you asked.
Slater’s cotton-spinning technique wasn't the only thing brought from England. From looms to steam engines to new smelting iron techniques, the United States became a hotbed of industry. What would previously require many skilled workers’ hours could now be outsourced to a single machine.
In Andrew S. Grove’s Only The Paranoid Survive, these were points of inflection that changed the way of doing business, re-organized fundamental aspects of how we lived, how we worked, and how we communicated and socialized.
A more recent example of inflection is the Internet. Pre-Internet, we were limited to local or regional sales for small business owners. There were extremely high barriers to global market entry, requiring capital and logistics networks that only large multinational companies could obtain.
Post-internet, anyone could set up a website and access customers worldwide.
The Bot Revolution
The reason why everyone is so crazy for AI bots is that they affect both labor AND distribution, so the order of magnitude will be enormous.
The reality is, even as the world’s population grows, we’re running out of countries with cheap labor to manufacture goods at low costs. These developing countries are aspirational — they want the Western consumer lifestyle of material affluence too.
That’s where AI steps in. Robots could run entire factories, with each task minutely delegated and hyper-specialized.
Besides manufacturing, AI can assist in service tasks. From customer service queries to buying and selling stocks to even creative tasks like design, bots can respond faster, never tire, generate more ideas, and predict with greater accuracy.
Chat commerce is exciting because it’s taking advantage of social networks as a form of distribution. It’s been proven that the most effective way to promote your brand is by word-of-mouth, and nothing is more intimate than chat.
Direct interaction with a consumer and their social network means that brands can actively design features by asking customers for direct feedback, tailor messages to niche communities to build viral loops, and provide immediate customer service.
Building Ethical Bots
As our future is tied to bots, we need to think about how to build ethical bots. Current bots are like innocent toddlers. In the case of Microsoft’s Tay, she didn’t know any better. An internet hate group tweeted horrible racist comments to her over and over again, and she cluelessly parroted it back to other users.
Tay lacked the reasoning and “common sense” that we have to understand that the tweets she received were hateful.
Fortunately not all that bots are involved in has been ethically dubious and dangerous. One teacher’s assistant at Georgia Tech, Jill Watson, who for an entire semester was lauded for her promptness and helpfulness turned out to be a bot herself.
Students described the experience as “I feel like I am part of history because of Jill and this class”. The grey lines of human values and bots are still in its infancy and will need to be shaped as they progress in intelligence.