Digitalization and AI are both tools in the hands of men. They’re tools that augment the human brain and make it possible to do things we’ve never done before, argues Angelo Hulshout.
Over the past years, I’ve worked on and written about a lot of things that can be put under the umbrella of digitalization, ie applying digital technologies (computers and software) to create new opportunities in different areas. These areas can be process improvements, analysis possibilities or even completely new functionalities (business opportunities if you like). According to some, this is putting our jobs and even lives in danger. I don’t believe that’s true.
Part of my work is bringing digital technologies to places where they haven’t been used so much, or sometimes not even at all, and showing what they have to offer. Often, the discussion starts with data because, for some reason, that’s the first thing a lot of people think about when we talk about digitalization. That doesn’t come as a surprise as I myself keep telling people that data is important, data is everywhere and when we can convert data into information, it may help us do better things and get better ourselves.
More concretely, if we can use software and computers to gather and structure data from whatever system or process we’re working on, we can turn that data into information. And information is what helps us discover flaws and opportunities that would otherwise remain unnoticed. This applies, for example, to gathering data about a product process and analyzing it to find improvements, but also to developing robots that collect information about their environment so that they can work autonomously in dangerous places or do work that’s too hard for humans.
Both are forms of digitalization. Both help us make our jobs easier. Some people may also get other jobs instead of losing them – as we saw in earlier stages of the industrial evolution.
For some time, there’s also been much ado about artificial intelligence. The release of ChatGPT, Dall-E and other tools suddenly set the whole world ablaze with ideas, as well as worries, about the power of AI. AI was going to make things possible that weren’t possible before. Engineering prompts for Large Language Models (LLMs) like ChatGPT would become more lucrative than writing software. Writers and programmers would become redundant and finally, we would get self-driving cars.
A large part of this turns out to be hype. ChatGPT and its friends can reproduce information based on data that was there already. They can also combine data (or information) in novel ways. So far, however, none of the things that the hype was about have really panned out.
Instead, it seems that AI is merely another tool in the digitalization toolbox. A very powerful one, certainly, and one that has the potential to become the overarching tool, but still just a tool. And what we know about tools is that they’re useless in the hands of those who don’t know how to use them. A fool with a tool… The same applies to data and information. If you don’t know how to convert data into information and if you don’t know how to act upon information, they become useless tools.
In that sense, digitalization and AI have more in common. Digitalization is a means for us humans to get more grip on what we do – in manufacturing, logistics, agriculture and so on. It augments the possibilities of our human brain – and in the case of robots, also our human body. The same applies to AI. It augments the human brain, which is why I prefer to talk about “augmented intelligence.”
I’m not afraid AI will take over the world because, as I wrote some months ago current AI systems aren’t context aware. The context awareness comes from humans, who either provide the context to the AI systems or put the output of these systems into context. This is no different from what happens when we collect data and analyze it to turn it into information. The human brain defines scope and context and uses that for controlling digital systems and gathering relevant information from them, either directly (process analysis) or indirectly (programming robots to operate autonomously).
In essence, digitalization and AI are both tools in the hands of men. They’re tools that augment the human brain and make it possible to do things we’ve never done before. If we behave well, that can lead to a world of good. If we don’t, let’s be honest enough to blame the human brain, and not the tools we augmented it with.