Issue: The 10 Disruptive Companies Beyond Workplaces

The Future Belongs To Centaurs

Centaurs are surprisingly useful images for conversations about artificial intelligence. Centaurs are, of course, the creatures from mythology that have a human head, torso, and arms mounted on top of a horse’s body. Greek mythology is filled with examples of humans interacting with these half-human, half-god beings to good and bad ends alike. That makes it more interesting to talk about centaurs in the context of enhancing human cognition with AI technology. Just like the AI-augmented humans that will be commonplace in the future, centaurs represent a supercharged humanity that’s still recognizable as quite human. Nowadays we still lack the “advanced general intelligence” systems of science fiction, but we’re very good at building AI systems that excel in exactly one arena. This so-called “narrow AI” can effortlessly process deeply complex information as long as that information lands within the purview of its algorithm. When people use AI to enhance their own information-processing abilities, they become domain-specific centaurs: ordinary people perched atop something very powerful. I used to run a machine learning company in the manufacturing space. Our software product would monitor outputs from giant manufacturing machines in order to anticipate maintenance issues and save on repairs. Our system could provide early warnings on hardware failures, but it had no sense of its own context. But humans are intuitive context machines: when this system alerted a human to an impending failure, that person could take preventative measures and save the day. Our AI system made that worker into a sort of domain specific centaur despite human limitations, he or she had an eye into the future. This person remained totally human but had achieved a useful “superpower” with help from AI technology. This is just one example. There’s room across industries for domain-specific centaurs to change how all kinds of work gets done. Virtual nurse assistants in the healthcare space could leave human healthcare staff with more time to spend on patients requiring more detailed care. Fintech centaurs could help financial entities gain new, nonobvious insights from financial data analysis. As AI is literally made of math, mathematics centaurs are especially compelling they could help us push boundaries in the field and solve previously unsolved problems. Domain-specific centaurs are a little stronger, faster, and better all-around than their unenhanced counterparts. Here’s what you need to know about them. A domain-specific centaur is already an expert in a given field. When that leading expert is made even more effective at his or her work, we’ll see the initial flashes of our superhuman-enabled future. What starts as software that makes us more effective decisionmakers will eventually become a transformative technology that sees us transcend our human limitations and biology. Perhaps paradoxically, we’ll become more human at the same time. With so much dreary, high-involvement work handled automatically (and exceedingly well), we’ll be free to explore other interests and excel in other arenas. This will mark the beginning of the superhuman era. Centaurs help us understand the symbiotic relationship between humanity and artificial intelligence. Mythological centaurs occupy a middle ground between god and mankind. They are stronger and faster than any individual person. They retain enough human traits to be recognizable as people, but there’s no mistaking they’re another category of being entirely. Just as centaurs can run faster and jump farther than any standalone human, mankind will eventually recognize a warm and fuzzy “you complete me” feeling for AI technology. While the popular science fiction narratives tell us that it will be our undoing, this technology is our best friend. Deployed across different sectors of life and business, AI systems will change a little bit of everything to unlock maximum convenience for humans everywhere. AI depends on us to give it directions, and so far, we are directing it to work for us. We still need each other. People have had uneasy relationships with the superhuman throughout myth and history, and science fiction is filled with AI anxiety. But AI will help us transcend our human limits to see new solutions to unsolved problems everywhere. In those stories where a human somehow manages to cross the threshold and achieve supernatural power, it usually spells disaster. But we’re about to cross that threshold with respect to AI, and the future is bright.
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