Tim Hall and Liam Kelly, student experience managers at the University of London Worldwide, explores the world of artificial intelligence and warns that As technology changes the skills that employers require in their staff, education providers will have to adapt to new priorities and demands.’

A sentient machine that is smarter, faster and more efficient than humans are turns on its creators and destroys them. Sound familiar? This basic narrative forms the premise for many of the popular culture references to artificial intelligence (AI) that are familiar to many of us. In films, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix, as well as countless science fiction novels, modern storytellers have been fascinated with this trope.

AI itself is not a recent concept in fiction. Samuel Butler predicted sentient machines in his 1872 novel Erewhon. The advances we have made since then in computing, robotics and AI are staggering, but so too is our reliance on technology. Should we be worried about AI or could the ‘rise of the machines’ be the next big opportunity?

The technical term closest to that depicted in science fiction is Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). These are general-purpose thinking machines so powerful that they are comparable to the human mind. Machines that could work and adapt themselves across a variety of domains and achieve goals in complex and changing environments.

There are a number of definitions of AGI, but in keeping with the theme of higher education, roboticist Ben Goertzel’s is ‘when a robot can enrol in a human university and take classes in the same way as humans, and get its degree, then I’ll [say] we’ve created [an] Artificial General Intelligence’. Experts predict that AGI may become reality in the next two decades.

AI as disruptor

A potential consequence of AGI is the creation of a machine that has the ability to enhance itself, outside of our control, described as ‘The Singularity’. Once this happens, it could start doing so at exponential speeds. Up until this point, capability can only improve as quickly as research progresses, but this will evolve to an ever-more rapid feedback loop – one that may result in an intelligence vastly superior to the combined intellect of every human on the planet.

There has been much recent discussion about disruptive technologies, but none seems anywhere near as potentially disruptive as AI. Two years ago at the University of London Centre for Distance Education’s annual Research and Innovation in Distance Education conference, a packed room of academics, learning technologists, and subject experts, were asked which technologies would have the biggest impact on higher education. The results revealed AI was the clear winner.

Outside of education, what impact will advancements in AI have on the workplace? Experts have suggested that there will be a substantial shrinkage in the workforce, with some predicting up to 40 per cent of existing jobs being lost to automation, robotics and machine learning. This prediction is not for the distant future, but for the next 10 years. We can already see machines replacing staff in the retail sector, with the widespread introduction of self-service checkouts in supermarkets. As technology changes the skills that employers require in their staff, education providers will have to adapt to new priorities and demands.

This is an edited extract of ‘Rise of the Machines’ published in the fourth issue of WC1E, the University of London’s alumni magazine. The full version is available here.