This article was published on July 5, 2016

Understanding the impact of AI

Understanding the impact of AI
Matt Webb
Story by

Matt Webb

Matt Webb is Global Chief Technology Officer at Mirum. Matt Webb is Global Chief Technology Officer at Mirum.

Steam engines, telegrams and typewriters.  All obsolete technologies, but well worthy of preservation in the name of engineering history and art.

Coding will join this list in time, however, where it differs wildly from the afore mentioned examples is it is unlikely to be lovingly preserved for future generations to admire, fiddle with or better still, reactivate.

Its essence will not be reified for one specific reason – it can’t be touched and humans value tactility.  It’s our basic instinct.  We touch immediately, both inside and outside the womb.

Today, we find ourselves at a pivotal moment in our existence and about to experience an exponential period of rapid technological growth the likes of which is quite probably beyond our comprehension and at a base level, will have serious implications for coding.

We rather arrogantly think that because we have a good grasp of our own technological advancement so far, we can somehow predict the mass cultural and behavioural shift about to happen as we question our own skills in the world.  Us techies hold on to the notion that we are the masters of code, and we will be forever commanding line by line, the computers to do our bidding.

We have already outsourced our knowledge to Google.  It makes perfect sense that we will outsource coding to AI.

Fear not, even though hauliers will be steadily replaced by automatons, we’ll not all be out of jobs because of AI and its impact on coding.  We’ll be gainfully employed based on our ability to work with various forms of AI, according to Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired.

coding, development

The future will be bright. The near future, however, is the issue and the way we are teaching the next generation to handle AI is counterproductive to its true potential.

First up, let’s examine the history of coding.

15 years ago coding was the preserve of the super geeks at MIT and NASA.  In the last 10 years coding courses appeared for the general public.  In the last five it has appeared in schools and in the last two, the UK government has made it a mandate there.

Coding has gone from a hobbyist scenario to the mainstream and just like we expect to order a product online and have it delivered immediately, we should expect AI to be doing all our coding in the future.

And while teaching coding in schools it is an admiral initiative for this tiny little epoch, we must be aware there is an imminent and finite lifespan with regards to its practice.

If we’re increasingly becoming a planet of futurists purely by technology’s prevalence in our everyday lives, then is it not time to move forward with an alternative proposition – a prescient opportunity to retool our children with the practical and social skills your eleven year old is most likely lacking at the moment, so that their eyes will one day return to meet those of another human beings in awe and wonderment at a discovery they have actually made by themselves or with the assistance of AI?

furbie, machine

We’ll still have access to all this fantastic data, but minus the screens required to display it.  So, why not understand that and capitalise on the very real window we currently are in the privileged position of having in order to develop the life we are so rapidly losing in our society as a result of less and less physical product being handled and more importantly understood.  Remember man grew apples before the app and I’d hedge a bet he’d still derive more pleasure from nurturing and seeing the tree grow than something invisible take virtual shape.

As a people watcher, I enjoy studying the way we interact with technology and people’s behaviour in respect of it.  I worry, however, about the cultural impact our existing teaching in the field of AI is having on the youth of today.

I believe we are focussing on too narrow an area of technology and I don’t think anyone has fully considered what all this eyes down and in my opinion, rudimentary coding is doing to the brains of our children.

If we know that we will be able to create whatever we want in the future from spaceship parts to bespoke holiday experiences based on the data we have offered our systems, merely by talking to an input and I’ll go one further, not even having to do that, because AI will:

  1. Know more about us and others like us,
  2. Make a suggestion, or
  3. Just make a decision on our behalf, what will be left for us humans to do?

Not much, you might say… but let’s return to that point of tactility.

Our brains have evolved to respond to the slightest of stimuli.  It craves it and we enjoy working things out, overcoming challenges and learning from our mistakes – despite what you might think as a result of your present conditioning.  This tactility is what truly advances us, so let’s bring that back into the schools while we still have a chance.

We should be teaching children to understand how our physical world works because I don’t see the place we call earth going anywhere soon from under our feet.  The digital arena is commendable but getting our connection back with the real world is of vital importance for our very race’s survival and continued evolution.


I first got this notion 20 years ago when going from Human Cybernetics class at Reading University, and the lecturer was having a tongue-in-cheek dig at one of his Control Engineer peers.  The message to me was loud and clear. Don’t worry too much about the particular unit, module, function or sub-part – look at the system as a whole.  Robot, house, car, pumping station, – they all have software and hardware and they all have to work together – better to have a broader view and appreciation of the whole system than to get hung up on one part.  This is the same as AI and coding to me – they are parts of our world not the be all and end all.

Yes, we should be inspiring our children to do better and be better. But, they should want to code, build and make because they want clean energy, not because the government tells them to.

We should be encouraging our children to think about the future of interfaces and challenge the way we huddle round screens and we need to talk about partnering with AI instead of treating it as subservient, which is how Alexa, Cortana, Siri are being used at the moment, (and we all know slaves eventually revolt) effectively appealing to the lowest common denominator in our society, the mass consumer.

AI offers us a fantastic chance to make the world a safer place, mitigate against climate change and heal us quicker after injury. But we’ll ultimately become fleshy blobs floating in an infinite ocean of AI unless we learn how to swim again, to properly harness its benefits while simultaneously allowing us, the human, to live, breathe, touch, fail and contemplate as humans, capable of the most wonderful abstract thoughts and acts of spontaneous and conscious kindness.

In order to achieve this, we should be taking the time out now to teach our children about robotics, Meccano and the concepts of human computer interaction, and very importantly how we can look at systems as a whole, because if we are going to live in a place where everyone can customise the world around them, then coding just isn’t going to be important anymore.

It is mankind’s duty, as long as we procreate the way we do, to feel with our own mind, body and soul, to continually question, search and discover our own mental and physical routes in life, even if that means the odd cut finger while playing in the guts of an engine.  This is true and innovative thinking.

In short, I would rather sacrifice code to the machine (as it is arguable far better suited) and spend the time focusing on how can leverage the machines to make us better humans.

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