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Rise of the machines

Rise of the machines
College of Arts and Sciences

Advances in artificial intelligence could change the way we work in the not-so-distant future

By Tasha Neumeister

Could your next co-worker be a machine or a robot? It’s not out of the realm of possibility, says George K. Thiruvathukal, professor of computer science and director of Loyola’s departmental computing.

The strides made in artificial intelligence (AI), the computer science area where computers perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, have grown exponentially, and Thiruvathukal expects to see a steady progression in the next five to 10 years with robotics becoming more a part of our everyday workplace. “Much as the printing press and modern electronic computer had direct consequences on the workforce,” he says, “the new age of AI/machine learning is going to replace many jobs.”

Thiruvathukal has been tracking advances in AI and robotics, an industry that has steadily grown to replicate humans both in function and character. Many activities that humans undertake can be done more safely or efficiently by robots. We’re already seeing robotic automation in industries such as agriculture and manufacturing, and Thiruvathukal expects to see robots play a larger role in the future in fields such as medicine, pharmacy, space exploration, and the military.

Even some of the seemingly far-fetched AI seen in Hollywood may not be that far off. Computer vision, for example, has seen great strides with advances in autonomous vehicles like self-driving cars, bringing us closer to robots having an intelligent pair of eyes. Robotic hands, including prosthetics, are also now being developed for amputees. While this is not exactly creating full androids yet, the ability to realistically mimic physiology is a key component of building the next Terminator.

But should the idea of AI in the workplace be as frightening as the Terminator? Thiruvathukal isn’t so sure. “The workforce will need to adapt to the latest innovations in computing technology,” he says. “More than ever, we face the risk of losing many good jobs. But we’re seeing many good jobs being created, too.”

The “holy grail” for AI research, as he puts it, is for computer algorithms to do the work with little or no human supervision. “At first blush, this may sound like we have no need for humans,” he says. “But it is the contrary: We’d like human brainpower to be focused on the overall tasks, as humans are needed to adjust what the robots are doing.”

That means the skillset needed for some jobs will change. Human workers will at minimum need to know how to write a bit of code to be able to manage their robot workers, Thiruvathukal says. In his classes at Loyola, he’s trying to ensure that future generations of workers will have the technological literacy to keep up with the changes ahead.

“There has never been a better time or place to learn about computing,” Thiruvathukal says, “at least to make sure you’ll know something about your next co-worker—a robot—and how it gets its work done.”