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AI and quantum computers: What’s next for humans and machines?

Updated: Mar 7

The Open Data Institute (ODI) 2023 Summit navigates the world of tech

Navigating the world of tech and its data landscape is not easy. Yet, almost 66% of the global population uses the internet – leaving a digital footprint as they do so. Social media has changed how we socialise, communicate, shop and do business. An estimated 71% of businesses have an online presence. All our computing contributions enable neural networks deep inside our connected devices – to make sense of our world. And we’re on the verge of a different era of how we live with and leverage computers.

The internet is both a beautiful and ugly place. For my generation – who've grown up with the explosion in tech since the 1990s – the world doesn’t always feel more intelligent, convenient or social. Our fleshy grey matter (that can read a room, process a million bits of data per second and instinctively know when to laugh out loud or smile or shut up) is stressed out. Burnout, over-stimulation and heightened anxiety is a global phenomenon occurring on an exceptionally large scale.

The Open Data Institute (ODI)

The Open Data Institute (ODI) Summit is a real treat for anyone interested in artificial intelligence (AI), machines and computing. The ODI was co-founded in 2012 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Sir Nigel Shadbolt. Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and its unique indexing system. And he’s the scriptwriter who invented Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). Shadbolt is an interdisciplinary researcher, policy expert and commentator. His Wikipedia entry describes his research as focused on understanding how intelligent behaviour is embodied and emerges in humans, machines and (most recently) on the web.

The ODI’s weekly newsletter is the best round up of tech news I've come across. The institute navigates the balance between promoting applications for data sharing. And highlighting ethical and practical issues of AI. Issues no other generation have had to consider on this scale.

I’ve attended the ODI’s annual summit for the last three years. In 2023, I decided not to experience it alone. Instead, I chose to be the most technically amateur data wrangler in a group of seasoned pros. Stephen, Nik, Alex and I spent the day together – listening to and discussing the themes in real-time. Nothing beats being in the same room as data change-makers discussing hot topics. It reminded me of the importance of in person conversations. The importance of understanding that very personal language – body language.

Next, are my three key takeaways from the ODI summit. And my thoughts on where we must, cautiously, go to survive and thrive while we work and play in cyberspace. This isn’t scraped from the black box of the web. It’s my take on what’s worth noting for 2024 – and how it applies to some of the trends I'm seeing in the UK right now.

Search engines and chatbots

Many of us have wrapped our heads around search engines, but talking with an AI-powered chatbot is a different kind of exchange. It requires more of a conversation with our computer and the appreciation that you are always training the machine. An appreciation of how large language models work will go a long way. The computer needs the conversational style because it’s learning how to be human – so it can serve us better.

We’re pretty good at searching for content. Optimising our content for search engines is a craft transformed by the emergence of AI. If you upload wares to eBay, you’ll find AI does some of the heavy lifting and writes product descriptions to match your uploaded image.

Good conversational style questions are important for the large language models used by these mega computers. Context is important. Right now, they’re prone to confidently jumping to conclusions and filling their knowledge voids with ‘botshit’.

To be more intelligent the bots need a colossal contribution from grassroots perspectives. Not in an academically polished way, but in a naturally human way. A sarcasm font has been long overdue. But we still live in an era where some feel uncomfortable putting an emoji (or any personal style) in professional communications. Sharing honest thoughts with a computer is a stretch too far for many of us.

People are waxing lyrical about the importance of places like Mumsnet and Reddit. Places with genuine human interaction – that’s favoured over algorithmically designed content that’s fast becoming bland and predictable. It’s not only bland. It can magnifies digital exclusion if people don't desire or cant access the means to fill cyber space with their experiences.

The ODI were bang on the money to suggest smaller and more accurate modelling to build trust and accuracy. And to understand real application and power of AI.

Participation and representation

There’s a very evident missing economic middle in the data space. There are so many small and mid-sized organisations not exploring their data opportunities. Whether it’s risk adversity (to investing in the unknown) or not knowing where to start, many companies have not scratched the surface of what’s possible. One could argue that this is a competitive advantage. That their offline relationship with customers is a beautiful thing. But for the quantum computer neural networked brain, it's a massive miss for knowledge accumulation and learning. It's why TikTok might be more educated than LinkedIn.

The stat ‘71% of companies are online’ is a bold one which needs segmenting. How do we

measure online? A locksmith who fixed my front door this week is online. He has registered his company with Checkatrade and he was fast to reply to my job posting. But he was beaten by a nationwide business with a programmed immediate response. That programming made the process so immediate it was hard to ignore. Powerful apps are often referred to as available and accessible for all. But not everyone has the time or tenacity to explore these emerging opportunities. Is a hairdresser with a Google profile and Instagram account really online?

Communication is important at every human life stage. Social interaction in this emerging cyberspace isn’t something nineteenth and twentieth-century philosophers can pass on much wisdom about. This is new territory. Being authentic and remaining private is a double-edged sword. And the jury is out on how or where to work to be productive. But it feels like we’re in agreement that the level of ‘noise’ we’re subjected to now is maddening. Our paid and unpaid responsibilities are wildly different today from what they were just ten years ago.

For the sake of younger generations – who think this level of cyber connectivity is normal – we must acknowledge we’re all learning. Every single day. Now we must find the time for collective action on these lessons.

Learning in this new space

Computing will transform every discipline. Even with declining numbers of people entering computer sciences, the adoption of technology is only going to grow and get better in the core subjects. Technology is helping us be more knowledgeable than any other generation. We have more information at our fingertips. Virtual and augmented reality is helping re-imagine how we explore and learn about past, present and future.

Computers are democratising a lot of knowledge. They’re also endangering natural specialities. Fun is being had by people who can’t draw but can use speech and text to generate extraordinary images. It all looks a bit computer-generated. The telltale signs are wild eyes, strange hands, unrealistic situations, unimaginative clothing and trippy mystical neon outdoor scenes.

But this technology will improve fast. These issues will resolve years before the creative

community has come to terms with it. We’re training the machine to be so good. Even if we didn’t intend to and permission to use our creations wasn’t sought.

Language and literature are fascinating areas of change. Computers have assisted with

plagiarism detection for a long time. But we’re about to enter a period when so much text is generated by computers that it’s impossible to govern. In 2023, Amazon put a limit of three books per day on the number of books you could self-publish. Deepfakery is real. We’re already in a world where we can train a computer to imitate a person’s handwriting and voice.

Meanwhile, children are recoding their own language to obfuscate their elders. And I don’t blame them. Adoption of technology in schools needs inspirational leadership and skilled management.

The internet is full of free to access tutorials on how to do just about everything. It was music to my ears to hear that ODI quote research that indicates most people learn best with a tutor. A real person.

Large language models will provide great opportunities to support identification of skill requirements. Empowering educators to connect and support learners in an online world requires finesse. The better use of technology to deepen our understanding of what it is like to be human in this tech era will really help us get the balance right.

I can’t big up the ODI enough – and the case studies they shared. You’ll find all the interviews on YouTube. Sign up to the ODI newsletter for a great round-up on all things data.

Jenny Barnes


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