The first time I encountered artificial intelligence (AI) was in Beijing’s Pearl Market. The market, in the seat of Chinese communism, is one of the most extreme examples of freewheeling capitalism you will find anywhere, with six storeys of stalls selling “knock-off” everything.

Half the joy is the haggle. The Chinese sellers start high and the game is to bargain them down. It’s pure theatre, full of dramatic strops, ham indignation, pulled faces, winks, nods and, ultimately, deals. The place is abuzz.

The saleswomen are Chinese and speak amazing English. I went with a friend from Argentina who claimed that not only were they fluent in Spanish, but knew Latin American idioms. We couldn’t believe it. They were completely effortless in chatting about the deal, the quality, the origin of the fabric, the brands, the disparity in prices, the factories, the prices in New York, London and yes, Dublin. They giggled and acted up, in perfect English. Likewise in Spanish.

It was an extraordinary experience until we asked them questions like, “How’s the weather in Beijing in spring?” From complete fluency when talking about prices, brands, exchange rates and percentages, they looked blankly, first at each other, then at us.

It later struck me that these impressive saleswomen were somewhat akin to human “language bots” who had cleverly learned some English and Spanish (plus French and German) and were able to give the impression of fluency, but could only talk about a narrow range of topics – in this case, mostly about selling jeans. They had been taught to anticipate questions from foreign buyers based on the likelihood that we’d all ask the same questions.

That was their data set, if you like, and they had learned to recognise the sounds of what to them was a foreign language, rather than truly understand it. It transpired that there was a language school on the top floor of the market which many of them had attended, or so I was told.

It was still phenomenal to witness, and most people went away marvelling at the linguistic dexterity of these knock-off brand sellers.

Since then, the explosion in e-commerce and data mining has made “bots” – machines triggered by prompts that anticipate what questions a human will ask – part of our online lives. Their competence is increasing by the day.

For example, this week I tried the app ChatGPT. The intelligence of this robot is breathtaking. Ask it to write an essay, article or blog and the quality of the material spewed out is impressive – and terrifying. The robot trawls the Internet for material on the subject and then, as if it were a learned human brain, structures all this information, in seconds, into a coherent “thought process”, producing the desired number of words.

AI will be part of our future and it will have the same impact on certain professions as Gutenberg’s printing press had on legions of monastic scribes who, before the printing press, wrote, illuminated and published manuscripts. That said, while the scribes may have been outmanoeuvred by the printing press, the same technology ushered in an explosion in books, literacy and ideas. The world benefitted while the monks suffered. AI will be the same. It is already here. Check out these numbers.

Revenue from the AI software market is expected to reach €118 billion ($126 billion) by 2025, according to Statista. Three-quarters of all customer service interactions are expected to be driven by AI-based platforms by 2025. According to a survey conducted by Deloitte, companies claiming they are using three or more types of AI have increased from 62 per cent to 79 per cent in just one year. Nine out of 10 business leaders agree that AI is critical to success over the next five years. According to a PWC report, AI could contribute up to $15.7 trillion to the world economy by 2030

The application I was using this week, ChatGPT, was launched by OpenAI in November 2022. It is looking for more capital to expand, and expects $200 million revenue in the next year and $1billion revenue by 2024. Bloomberg has reported that Microsoft plans to pump $10 billion into the company.

Investors getting excited is no guarantee of success – remember the hype around the Metaverse this time last year? But the uses of AI are varied, and some may surprise you. For example, earlier this week, on Valentine’s Day, chances are the love letter you may have received was written by a robot. If that was not this year, it will be the case next year. One in three men and around one in five women, globally, planned to use AI to write love letters this Valentine’s Day, according to this 2023 survey conducted by McAfee, with 21 per cent of respondents stating, “I’m short on time and this would be most efficient” as their reason. Only 30 per cent said they could tell the difference between a robotically generated love letter and the real thing from the human heart.

Looking forward, this is where one of the many clashes between AI and humans will lie. In the education system, if we outsource subjects such as history, languages and literature to robots, allowing them to trawl the internet for information, and we encourage students into technologies, science and maths, what happens to society?

Every scientific breakthrough had the effect of moving humans from using deductive reasoning, drawing on what is already known, to inductive reasoning, projecting forward rather than looking back. AI is likely to push us further towards inductive reasoning.

Thankfully, AI robots, while able to regurgitate information already known, are still unable to make emotional connections based on human experiences. New ideas are sourced in critical thinking and humans make complicated and unexpected combinations. This is still the preserve of humanity. But for how long?

One thing is clear: the development of AI and the likes of ChatGPT means we must shift our education system from rote learning and regurgitation. This is a huge challenge for the Leaving Cert approach to education. A test system which is largely a memory test must go. It has to be replaced by something less rigid and ultimately less exam-based. The Leaving Cert must at least try to prepare students for real life. In a world of AI, the Leaving Cert is redundant.

It’s time to embrace 21st-century thinking. If we don’t, the robot will.

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