If you think that AI is going to make your marketing job obsolete, think again. AI may just make your job (and many aspects of your existence) completely manageable and utterly exciting for the very first time. This is the view of Byron Reese, author of The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity, which explores how AI, robotics, automation and more are combining to unlock unlimited opportunities and make the impossible possible. Our host Peggy Anne Salz catches up with Reese–the CEO and publisher of the technology research company GigaOm, the founder of several high-tech companies and the owner of several patents–to discuss the impact of AI and robotics on the future marketer. Reese brings the topic to life with inspiring examples and truthful scenarios, using human history and nature as a lens to frame how our age, the Fourth Age, can play out and potentially alter everything for the better.
So Byron, thank you so much for joining me today on Mobile Presence. How you doing?
BR I’m doing great, thank you for having me.
PAS So, full disclosure, I have a copy of the book which makes me sort of a fan, you know, I’m waiting for the t-shirt, I have an autographed copy here. So, that’s – I’ve read it, I’ve taken a look at it, we’re going to explore that but we also want to take a step back for our audience, you’ve spent your life in technology, I’m reading it, founder of several companies, patents in psychographics which is ultimately cool, published author of not just this book but others. So, I want to understand, you know, you’re bringing balance to a pretty heated discussion. Is that what you set out to do, is this the next step in the continuum of your own career, Byron?
BR Well, what I set out to do was actually answer a question that I was asking myself which is, you know, it struck me that so many different people have such different views on artificial intelligence. Like, you have a group of people, like, you know Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawkin who were afraid of the technology who say, you know, this is an existential threat. And then you have other people also in the tech world who think that’s just crazy talk and really what I wanted to know was why, how did people like that come to such radically different conclusions?
So, that was the journey I set out to write this book and I ended up writing a book where I don’t really talk about what I believe, I really try to get at the underlying assumptions behind, you know, is this technology going to take all our jobs or not? Well, if you believe it is, what are the assumptions that undergird that. So, I kind of wanted to write a book that just broke all this down for people.
PAS I mean, what I do really like about your book aside from all the context and all the background that allows us to really give perspective to this discussion – because you’re right, it is very heated, you know, it’s like the end of the world, dystopians, or it’s like yes, everything’s going to be great, you know, a little bit of a hippy utopia and you say we need a different word for that. But what you do really well is you break it down into is it what you know or what you believe and it turns out to be a set of beliefs, does it not, is that what you’re putting forth here, that really where you are in the discussion depends on what you believe.
BR Correct, I would say it’s very true. The underlying assumption, you know, there are two different things people mean when they say artificial intelligence and one of them is what you see in the movies, you know, that’s Commander Data, that’s C3PO, that's a robot that is smart and creative like a person. And that’s a technology nobody knows how to build, there would be universal agreement with that. But, in the tech world, most people believe we will build it and so you say, well, if nobody knows how to do it, why are they so confident it will happen?
And it’s because of a basic assumption that people are machines and if people are machines, then someday we’ll build a mechanical person and then two years later, that will be twice as smart and twice as smart and twice as smart. If people aren’t machines, then what a person does, a computer can never do what a person does because people aren’t machines.
And I host a podcast about artificial intelligence and I ask my guests virtually every one of them, ‘Do you believe people are machines?’ and overwhelmingly, like 95 out of 100, say, ‘Of course, what else would we be?’ But when I put that same question to audiences when I’m speaking, only about 15% of people believe that and I think that’s a real disconnect between kind of a Silicon Valley engineering reduction as mindset and one that has kind of a different view of what people are.
PAS So I’m going to go for it here, Byron, I’m going to ask you – human or machine, which camp - -you didn’t tell us in the book but I get the feeling through all the optimism that you’re at least very optimistic about how we can be augmented, helped or assisted by AI – are we machines, in your view?
BY Well, I would say it this way – we have these brains that we don’t understand, we don’t know how a thought is encoded, we don’t know how you recall things the way you do and we don’t just not understand the brain because it’s got 100 billion neurons, there’s this worm called a nematode worm and they only have 302 neurons in their ‘brain’ and there’s a group called the Open Worm Project that has spent 20 years trying to model those 302 neurons in a computer to make a digital nematode worm that behaves like a nematode worm, and not only have they not been able to do it, but there’s not even agreement that it is possible.
So, I think that’s interesting but then it doesn’t just stop there. You also have a mind and a mind is kind of everything the brain does that doesn’t seem to be something an organ should be able to do. Like, you have a sense of humour but your heart doesn’t have a sense of humour, your stomach doesn’t have a sense of humour – why is that? Where does that come from?
And then finally, most interestingly, we have consciousness and consciousness – people say we don’t know what it is and that’s not quite right. We know exactly what it is, nobody can explain how it is that it happens, what it is, is the experience of being you. You can feel warmth but a computer can only measure temperature and that difference is what we call consciousness and we don’t understand that.
So, to me, we have these brains we don’t understand that give rise to these minds we don’t understand which somehow create consciousness which we don’t even know how to pose the question of consciousness scientifically and yet people believe, ‘Oh, but we’re going to make it, we’re going to build that, yes, we’re going to build it’. And I don’t – I’m unconvinced, so that’s my short answer. A long answer to your very short question, I'm convinced that we are machines, I don’t think the case has been made and I find it to be very telling that we know so little about what makes us intelligent. We know so little about it.
So I have no reason to believe we can ever build intelligent machines. But, that’s an opinion. The book I wrote is about kind of dissecting that 12 different ways because in the end, I think everybody listening to me probably already has an opinion about whether they’re a machine or not, they don’t really need my opinion. But I just kind of wanted to walk people through the implications of that belief.
PAS I mean, you look at it from such a high level, I would be interested, I’m just curious myself, how did we just get to and stay with such a dystopian Skynet end of the world is coming when you show in your book the many ways how, you know, AI machine learning mixed with robotics, it can create also a better world and we’ll of course be exploring that in the second half of the show but just a question to get us to break, I mean, would you wonder like what happened – it seems like more than a disconnect, it seems like we’re almost determined to see the downside.
BR Well, you know, I agree with that but I believe it’s a habit that we’ve come by honestly in that this isn’t my analogy, somebody else said it but somebody said that our distant ancestors, it was far better for them to see a rock and to think it was a bear and run away than to see a bear and say, ‘Oh, it’s just a rock’ and stay put. So we are timid, frightened creatures who got to where we were by having a bias towards, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a bear, run, run’ and that’s what got us to where we are.
So I think we’re predisposed to looking at the worst that can happen and I just think it’s served us well. But to your point, you’re right, you know, for 10,000 years we’ve had kind of non-stop progress by virtually any measure anywhere in the world and yet surprisingly, out of the blue, everybody’s like ‘Yes, but it’s over now, that was a good run but now it’s all about the hell in a hand basket’.
PAS Exactly, the end of the world as we know it. So, on that note, Byron, we do have to go to a break, I am excited to get back to this conversation so listeners, don’t go away, we will be right back and even faster than usual so we can get back to this, Bryon, what do you think?
BR Alright, let’s do it.
PAS And we are back to Mobile Presence. I’m your host, Peggy Anne Salz. We have today, I am ecstatic, Byron Reese, enjoying it, discussing your book, ‘The Fourth Age’ and right before the break we were talking about the values, the beliefs, rather, the belief set that sort of puts us in one camp or another but also as background for our audience, I’d like to understand ‘The Fourth Age’ as a title because in this book, it’s beautifully written, I have to say, historical, context, bringing us through the ages but in a nutshell, bring me up to where we are in the fourth age – there was one, two, three and four, we’ll talk about five, but help me understand that continuum.
BR So, it’s a little arbitrary but the reasoning was that technology has kind of always been with us and it’s always been expanding and sometimes a technology comes along that’s so profound, it just really changes everything forever and so by my reckoning, the first of these was when we acquired speech which allowed us to coordinate our actions. The second was when we got agriculture but not agriculture itself, we got agriculture and that gave us the city because we settled down, the city gave us division of labour and that gave us prosperity. So I think that was the second, was how we have extra stuff is because of that. And the third one was two technologies that came along at the same time, writing and the wheel and those two technologies gave us everything we had to have nations and that’s why 5,000 years ago, all over the world, these empires just emerged because the technology was there.
And I pose it that artificial intelligence and robotics, two technologies that allow people to first outsource what their brains do and then outsource what their bodies do, that that is the kind of like change everything kind of technology.
PAS And I’ll go along with this because that’s exactly it, next question is how do they change us? Now, that’s the whole book, we could do a show just on that question but you do make the point several times that it will help us be more human, it will help us do things – not like an augment bionic way, right, but I think in a way that allows us to do what we do best as humans and with our characteristic of humanness perhaps. What is driving you, why do you envision it like this?
BR You know, we are where we are on this planet because we’re the smartest things on it, that’s why we are at the top of the proverbial food chain and all of a sudden we get this technology that makes us smarter. It would be akin to – I mean, if you hold an AI-enabled device in your hand, you’re all of a sudden as smart as that device, effectively, and that would be akin to us all going to bed at night and waking up with another 20 IQ points each, that would be really good for the human race.
If you don’t think that, then you kind of have to argue it would be better if we went to bed at night and we all woke up with 20 fewer IQ points and that’s a hard case to make. And so that’s kind of why I think it’s profound and big is that it just makes us collectively more smart and even more interesting is, it’s like we have learned very slowly, like, we almost go through our lives living on anecdotal stories and rules of thumb and our descendants are going to think we kind of staggered through life like drunken sailors on shore leave, that we just sort of wing it, we eat at whatever restaurant catches our eye or we get whatever but with artificial intelligence you all of a sudden get a permanent and growing memory of the planet, a collective memory of the planet that we get to mine for knowledge and insights and it will make us all that much smarter and I think that is just a wonderful, wonderful thing.
PAS Well, I have to say I’m a bit of a proponent of this, I am on your side because when I’m talking to mobile marketers, bringing us back to Mobile Presence, it’s a little bit more about mobile and marketing and presence and personalisation and engagement and all that good stuff – that is where I say the future marketer will be able to focus on what marketing was, leave the performance marketing, the numbers crunching to the AI, the algorithms, what have you, but that’s not a great future, people don’t see it as optimistically as I do. I’m like, ‘Well, you won’t have the drudge work’, ‘No, we won’t have jobs either’.
So, let’s address that discussion, will we be replaced, the fear of being replaced – you’re an optimist, you see the upside of this but what do you say to those marketers who say, ‘Hey, this is not going to be a helpful tool or a helpful partner in my work’?
BR Well, I would disagree. I mean, if you went back to 1995 when the Mosaic browser was released and you showed somebody the browser and you said, ‘Hey, in just 25 years, billions of people are going to use this, what effect will it have on jobs?’ An insightful person would say, ‘Well, I bet that the travel agents are going to be out of work and the stockbrokers and I bet the Yellow Pages are going to be out of work and then newspapers are going to have a hard time and people will send less letters because they have email’ and you would have been right about everything, every single thing, you would have been right.
But what you would have never said is, ‘Oh, there’s going to be Etsy and eBay, Airbnb, Uber, Amazon and Google and a million new companies that made $25 trillion in wealth’. So, that’s kind of the problem is that it’s very easy to see what the technology will take away, what jobs it will automate away but none of us have the creativity to imagine all that it’s about to enable any more than any of us could have seen in 1995, like you just can’t, it’s just a limit of imagination, you just can’t.
And so I would start by saying that and then I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the half life of a job is and I think it’s 50 years, I think every 50 years we lose half of all the jobs and yet for the most part, this country has stayed at full employment and you say, ‘Well, how can that be, how is it that every 50 years we lose half the jobs but we don’t have unemployment?’
And what happens is this, you know, imagine there’s a bunch of jobs from high paid, high skilled jobs like a geneticist and low paid, low skilled job, like an order take at fast food, and what people say is, technology’s really good at making these new high end jobs like the geneticist but it destroys these jobs at the bottom and then everybody says the same thing – they say, do you really think that person who lost their job has the skills to be a geneticist? Do the people who are being displaced have the skills for the jobs of tomorrow?
And the answer is ‘no’, that isn’t how it works. What happens is a college biology professor gets the geneticist’s job, then a high school biology teacher gets the college job, then a substitute gets hired on full-time at the school – all the way down, the question isn’t can people who are displaced by technology do these learn to code or whatever, the question is can everybody do a job a little bit harder than the job they have today? And I believe the answer to that is ‘yes’.
And so, anybody out there who believes my job is at risk, what will happen is parts of that job will be automated and that new opportunities will arise and you will use the skills you largely have to apply the new technology to your job. And I believe very deeply that any job that a machine can do, if you make a person do that job, the word for that is ‘de-humanising’. If a machine can do a job, then to make a person do that is to say to the person, ‘Hey, I don’t want you to be a human, I just need you to be like a machine and do this machine thing but we don’t have the machine, so I just need you to act like a machine’. And I don’t think that’s good work for people.
PAS No, it’s certainly also not satisfactory, I mean, you talk about the future of work but there’s also job satisfaction and again, back to our marketers, you know, feeling that they can do their job which was about creating tailored experiences and things we can’t refuse and being actually tapping more into the human side of marketing. We do have to go to a break right now but what I’d love to do with you when we get back, Byron, is I’d like to understand a little bit more about your insights into marketing. I mean, just at a high level, I would imagine you are also connecting with marketers over at your podcast as well when you’re talking about the future of AI, right?
PAS Okay, so we have tons to discuss, listeners, don’t go away, we’ll be right back after the break.
And we are back to Mobile Presence. I’m your host, Peggy Anne Salz. We have Byron Reese, I am having a great time, Byron, how are you doing?
BR I’m having a good time too.
PAS This is great and it’s almost a shame to have to wrap it up but we will and we’ll bring it back to mobile marketing, we’ll bring it back to marketers because, hey, you know, the first thing to understand is what can we do now because the reports are out there, I’ve got Forrester, I’ve got GumGum studies, what I'm looking at at Forrester Consulting, everyone’s ploughing money into it, Cap Gemini reporting the most employees are people in marketing concerned about the fact that they don’t understand how to use AI but that doesn’t stop them from investing in it.
So, let’s look at what you can do now and maybe it’s as simple as just learning about what AI is really and understanding that.
BR Yes, it’s unfortunately and overused term because it doesn’t really have a definition that everybody agrees on and so you can kind of say anything is that. But put simply, normally people either mean it’s something that responds to its environment or something that learns as it is used. I think the place to begin is to understand what the limits of it are and there are kind of three things it can do – it can do jobs, generally speaking, that two people would do exactly the same. If two people would do it exactly the same, like, data entry or something like that, generating reports and those sorts of things, we can probably automate it.
Also anything that is the same from day to day, where two days are exactly the same. You come in and run the same thing every day. And the third one is cognitive tasks that require less than one second to do. So, if something requires a human more than a second to think about it, we probably can’t automate it but if it’s less than a second, then you can probably automate it.
PAS I was going to say a lot of people go into this, where I’m hearing it right now is bidding, okay, automate your bidding, also try to figure out your own approach because of course all the ad networks have their AI, their algorithms, so it’s just like trying to get up one, a little head up, you know, step up on that.
BR Correct, and most people are going to use AI-enabled tools more than developing something proprietary within their organisation, for the most part because there are – it’s easier to do things than ever because toolkits are getting better but for the most part people are going to buy, or use, software packages that are AI-enabled that are driven by data that somehow learn as they go along.
And so, I would look around an organisation for things that look like you could apply data to them. You know, AI is good at games, you know, you always read the headlines when it beats a great chess player or wins at Jeopardy or whatever and the reason it’s good at games is because games have winners and losers, have points and penalties and a combined set of rules and the good news is much of what marketing people do looks like a game. Like, you just said, optimising bids or optimising a website to maximise conversions. Like, you can understand what winning looks like.
And so the whole area is built, all of marketing looks like a big game to AI and so it’s like looking around at things you do and imagining ‘How would I gameify that?’ You can probably find a tool that does that already.
PAS Well, I would love to continue this, we might even chat about some of those tools, some of those things but, hey, Byron, it ran away, time ran away with us but you will be back, I promise listeners, because I’m enjoying this way too much to stop the party now but in the meantime, Byron, how can people get in touch with you? You’ve got your podcast, you’re over at GigaOm which is, full disclosure, where I used to do some work a while back as a researcher and of course your book’s on Amazon so lots of places to keep up with you – what’s the best way?
BR Just type my name into your search engine of choice and I’m @byronreese at Twitter, Byron Reese everywhere, so I’m the easiest person to find.
PAS And your podcast, what is that and when is that, when can we hear that?
BR It’s called ‘Voices in AI’, it’s a contemplative reflection about the technology where – I really am trying to capture the moment and what people think right now about this technology because I think that will be very interesting in years to come. What we got right and what we got wrong.
PAS And that, my friends, is a wrap of yet another episode of Mobile Presence. You can check out this and all earlier episodes of the show by going to wmr.fm or you can find our shows on iTunes, Stitcher, Spreaker, Spotify and iheartRadio simply by searching Mobile Presence. So until next time – remember - every minute is mobile, so make every minute count. We’ll see you soon.