Worried about robots taking your job? You can rest easy … for now

  • The subject of artificial intelligence and its potential ramifications generates a significant amount of debate and discussion.
  • Last month a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, looked at the topic again.

The subject of artificial intelligence (AI) and its potential ramifications generates a significant amount of debate and discussion.

AI can mean different things to different people. Some may think of it as a catch all term for "smart robots" that can think like humans, but it's a bit more nuanced than that. For its part, analytics business SAS states that AI "makes it possible for machines to learn from experience, adjust to new inputs and perform human-like tasks."

Some have expressed genuine concern about the ramifications of AI. In 2014 the late scientist Stephen Hawking told the BBC that the "development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race." In 2017, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos took a slightly different view when he said that we were in something of a "renaissance" and "golden age" when it came to the subjects of machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Last month, a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, looked at the topic again. According to one participant in the discussion, chaired by CNBC's Steve Sedgwick, we're still "way, way behind having thinking robots … that will do the work of humans."

"The key about AI is data," Christopher A. Pissarides, professor of economics at the London School of Economics, went on to explain. "You need to have very large amounts of data with AI, and then it's programmed to interpret the data in certain ways."

Using chess as an example, Pissarides said computers were "very good" at the game because there were masses of data on moves from the past. "But anything new, anything that you need to stretch the way you are thinking about something, it (AI) won't be able to do," he added.

Looking at industrial data and where robots are in relation to automation, Pissarides said that the "automotive industry, by far, dominates. If you remove the automotive industry you'll probably be left with no robots anywhere in industry, except for isolated cases."

Another member of the discussion panel, Adaire Fox-Martin — a member of software giant SAP's executive board — said that both common sense and practicality had to be considered when thinking about new technologies.

"Nobody is going to congratulate any business 10 years from now because they implemented this piece of AI … or this IOT (internet of things) scenario," she said. "It is going to be based on the business value that you drive and the business outcome that is achieved by that," she added. "So I think that's the element of common sense — if we implement this technology, how does it help?"

Fox-Martin highlighted one area where technology could be effective. "Where you can see it helping is in the automation of processes that are tedious, in the first instance, processes that don't necessarily add any value from a human intellectual perspective, and processes that you can actually automate and free up individuals to be more creative … in their daily tasks."

Businesses would move when the outcome, and value of an outcome, could be clearly articulated.

"If it's just like a fad or something that's just going to work in the context of a particular exhibition or a particular scenario, for show's sake, businesses won't adopt because there's no outcome that you can define for a business," she said.

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