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You v. Bot

 Take a minute with me here and imagine you’re Tony Stark. Yes, the Tony Stark of Stark Industries: Chairman, Inventor Extraordinaire and Painfully Cool Superhero (it’s a nice daydream, you’re welcome). It sounds like an exhausting life, but Stark manages to handle it pretty well because Stark is very good at delegating. Firstly to J.A.R.V.I.S. (Just Another Very Intelligent System), Stark’s impressive self-made artificial intelligence system. Jarvis is friendly and compassionate, simultaneously playing processor whenever Tony needs some calculations made and mission control for Stark’s suits all whilst never slipping from his calm and professional demeanour. It is, quite literally, an inhuman task. And yet for all Jarvis has to offer Stark keeps around two further assistants, in the form of Pepper Potts and Natasha Romanoff – two incredibly capable characters. They might not quite match Jarvis for processing power, but they certainly hold their own in the measure of their usefulness. Between them, Stark’s multi-billion dollar corporation is in such good hands that he has no guilt in pursuing his preferred entertainment: building super-suits, saving the world (multiple times) and sharing a bit of banter with his superhero friends. Shawarma, anyone?


The immediate difference between his two assistants seems to be that Jarvis can only react to what Tony instructs him to do whereas Potts is far more discerning. However, current AI systems are becoming more and more intuitive, to the point that they’re just shy of being proactive. Natural language processing is perhaps the best example of this – it powers the predictive text that’s on most modern smartphones. The easiest way for AI to become smarter is to learn from and replicate human behaviour. Similarly, whenever a date is displayed on your phone, it’s only two quick clicks before it’s logged in your calendar – not as impressive as Jarvis by any means, but still pretty nifty.



Even more impressive is the potential for these systems to integrate with your daily routine. In the same way that Jarvis’ disembodied voice jumps between Stark’s lab and his suits, we can connect the various technologies that power our lives. For example your phone could connect to your self-driving car which can deliver a drive-through coffee through the automated gates and up the driveway to your Bill Gates-esque super-house. Where there’s a will there’s an increasingly easy way. For now, humans are very good generalists, and software is very good at performing specific pre-programmed tasks, but it seems in theory that all of these can be quite smoothly networked together.



It’s also all very professional: a digital assistant would have none of the qualms of the professional-personal boundaries of the job role. While a human assistant might feel underappreciated if they’re asked to make a coffee one too many times, a software system won’t have any problems ordering flowers for one’s spouse or booking dinner reservations. And yet, these human touches are an integral part of the EA’s role. Stark very much relies on Potts’ emotional intelligence to negotiate personal and professional quandaries. And just as there are differences between Natasha and Pepper’s approaches to situations there’s now a multitude of AI systems offering almost as much choice as when recruiting an actual human, so you can assess whether your personal chemistry aligns better with Alexa’s elegant charm or Siri’s sass.



If we take the Marvel universe as an authoritative account of the potential future, it’s clearly not entirely necessary that the rise of the cyborg will mean we all lose our jobs, regardless of how remarkable they might become. I guess what I would critique is that Pepper and Jarvis don’t take advantage of their potentially symbiotic relationship. I mean, if you have a state of the art AI around, it’s a bit silly to ignore the world of possibilities offered. Similarly, while we’re certainly already very comfortable using AI, we might need to work on becoming more comfortable with thinking of them as automated colleagues. As they continue to lessen the load of our administrative duties, EAs and PAs can focus on improving the skillsets they’re most valued for – non-linear problem solving, cultivating interpersonal relationships, developing good judgement – or what whatever special skill it is that makes you particularly good at your job.





Amina Lumet

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