I, For One, Welcome Our Robot Servants

Lisa Schmeiser

If you pay attention to the tech news, it’s not hard to pick up a vague sense that the goal of every person, product and company we cover is to render human work obsolete. Some work, I’m glad to see go — scanning in receipts to email to Accounts Payable is a far sight quicker than painstakingly arranging a collage of paper scraps and putting it in the interoffice mail for a three-week turnaround.

That’s why I was heartened to read Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s recent comments, where he made the distinction between artificial intelligence tools meant to replace human interaction and artificialintelligence meant to enhance human productivity. As he said during the DLD conference in Munich, “The fundamental need of every person is to be able to use their time more effectively, not to say, ‘let us replace you’.”

There a few notable ideas worth unpacking in that quote. First, Nadella is advocating for people to get the most out of their time. Without falling into a debate about “productivity” and who benefits from it — though that is a topic well worth revisiting soon, especially in light of Microsoft’s multiyear focus on AI as a productivity booster — there is something to the idea that we deserve to work smarter, not harder. The second idea I got from that quote is a broader one: It’s the idea that people want to do something that will give them a sense of purposeful accomplishment.

I realize that the sometimes-sisyphean task of going through patches and updates may not imbue one with a heady sense of fulfillment, but what Susan Bradley does with this column demonstrates precisely why it helps to have the human touch in the work that we do. She goes through and breaks down which patches matter, and why. She provides context — something that we still can’t get from text-generating robots. And in turn, that allows the rest of us to figure out how to respond to this information.

Machine learning is useful and I am glad people are working on ways to have our software take on repetitive, data-intensive and time-consuming tasks. But I am heartened to see that Nadella sees AI as a supplement, not a replacement, for human discernment.

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2017-01-17: