Declan Foster talks to Oliver Callan about demystifying artificial intelligence (AI) and his book Humology: How to Put Humans Back at the Heart of Technology. Listen back above.

Technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) can inspire fear thanks to their uncanny creative powers and their apparent ability to communicate with humans.

Author and consultant Declan Foster, however, says there’s no need to be afraid; AI isn’t nearly as smart as you might think. The author and change manager spoke to Oliver Callan about his book on ‘humology’; or the art of putting people back at the centre of the tech revolution.

Declan has spent two decades managing change in large organisations, and he’s now spear-heading a campaign to demystify technologies like AI. He is co-author with Joanne Griffin of the book Humology: How to put Humans Back at the Heart of Technology. The word ‘humology’ is a mash-up of the words ‘human’ and ‘technology’.

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The AI-powered tool Chat GPT has been in the news a lot; and it’s given rise to fears of human job losses. Declan says we need to understand is how AI actually works. He says a tool like Chat GPT doesn’t actually ‘understand’ human language, at least not in the way that humans do.

When asked a question, it trawls vast amounts of data at high speed, and churns out the most likely answer according to a mathematical formula:

"That’s just a piece of machine learning. And all machine learning is, is just maths and statistics on steroids. It’s not magic."

Tools like Chat GPT can’t do anything on their own. They don’t have ‘a mind’ of their own and they are there to serve us, he says:

"When it’s used properly, it’s just there to augment humans and not replace them."

Governments take the regulation of AI seriously, especially in light of the popularity of ‘art generators’ like Midjourney and Stable Diffusion. These tools create photos and illustrations in response to a text prompt; using images scraped from online sources. They can also generate ‘deep fakes’, by re-purposing images of real people and places and creating new pictures which are fake, but which look real:

"You can use a text-to-image software like Midjourney or Stable Diffusion and you can see that that might actually create an awful lot of problems. So they are certainly concerned in the US about how ‘deep fakes’ or fake images can actually be created, and it might be used, perhaps during the presidential election."

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Declan talks about recent developments which should help people to be able to tell if what they are looking at is real:

"Over the weekend, in fact, some of the leading lights in AI met with Joe Biden and they volunteered to put in what they are calling a ‘digital watermark’ in these images. So now you’re able to see, they can tell, like embed it in the code ‘this image is AI-generated’. You know, is it fake or is it a real image?"

The scheme is voluntary at the moment, but it’s a start, Declan says. There’s no internationally agreed legal framework governing the use of AI, but we have learned from past mistakes, and Declan says there are reasons to be hopeful:

"We’ve learned as a society that we didn’t do a good job of preparing for social media, and legislating for it. I think people are aware we don’t want to make that same mistake twice with AI. I can see from some of the work that I’m doing at the moment and studies that I’m doing over at Oxford, that there’s a real focus now on ethical applications of AI."

Declan has high hopes that AI can help solve some of the great problems of our age:

"I’m actually quite positive on AI. I think it has the capabilities to solve even some of these existential crises that we’re faced with, like climate change and food shortages, etc. I think AI will play a huge role in that. But we just have to use it carefully."

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When it comes to new technologies, find out what’s really going on, before you rush to judgement, he says:

"I also think that everybody needs be informed what AI is, so that they can have informed conversations about whether they’re for it or against it – you need to understand what it is."

Declan talks about which jobs are safe (for now) from the advance of AI; and which are most likely to be replaced, in the full interview: listen back to above.

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Humology: How to put Humans back at the Heart of Technology by Declan Foster and Joanne Griffin is published by Rethink Press.