As I sat in the waiting room I got the full heeby-jeebies.
"Cut my eyeballs open? And incinerate the cornea with a laser? Are you kidding?"
My bowels gurgled like a cappuccino machine. My face mutated from milky white to an unholy shade of green.
The nurse saw sweat dripping off the tip of my nose and strolled over to re-assure me “It’ll be fine” she said, adding, inexplicably, “When the laser cuts the smell is like burnt hair.” I think I squealed.
Then she offered me a thought which really did help. “The surgery is done by a computer-controlled laser. If anything goes wrong it’ll cut out immediately.”
It made sense. A robot brain can react in milliseconds. A scanner generates a 3D model of the eyeball, calibrated to a micron – that’s fifty times more precise than a human can perceive. Unlike a human surgeon, the algorithm controlling the laser never tires. It crunches the numbers at a rate of 200,000 million instructions per second.
This is why success rates are sensational. Fewer than one in a thousand experience complications. I went ahead with the operation. The laser took 30 seconds to blast each eye. My vision is now a grade higher than 20/20.
The nurse had a profound point. We cheerfully trust humans with our lives. We bestow taxi drivers and airline pilots with life and death powers over our fate. Rarely do we question their ability. Robots can be millions of times more precise and yet we um and ah. It makes no sense. The point needs stressing. In multiple fields we are seeing machines and automation raise standards.
In the Foreign Currency space, Transferwise has revolutionised the sector. It automates currency changing, using matching. This means pairing someone switching pounds into euros with someone else moving in the other direction (in principle, in practice thousands of transactions are offset against each other). The result is slashed fees. Investors last year valued Transferwise at $1.1 billion.
Automation can improve standards. Human advisers used to work hard to gather information on the market. Now bots trawl the whole market for the best information. Booking.com pioneered this in the travel sector. It offers up-to-date data on 1.3 million hotels. Who today would ask a travel agent to check room prices? It’s bonkers. A machine can do the job faster and better.
The user experience is improved by automation. The insurance market historically relied on agents to make deals. It was time-consuming – and often annoying – to talk to these agents.
A startup called Trov offers an app to insure household goods directly. Agents are eliminated. The improved experience means far more consumers will insure stuff like cameras and laptops.
Automation can work round the clock, and in hidden ways. Acorns is a great example. It’s an app designed to increase the amount you save. Spend £1.90 on a coffee and the 10p change is automatically sent to a saving account. Acorns can also be programmed to make deposits daily or weekly. A million people now use Acorns to improve their finances.
Machines offer limitless computational capacity. Some financial jobs need real fire-power. In banking, a gruesome job is that of reconciliation – comparing two sets of figures to spot anomalies. Many banks still do this by hand: human agents use pen and paper. It’s tedious beyond belief. A brilliant company called Du.co uses intelligent algorithms to automate the work. Accuracy rates are an order of magnitude higher. The job takes seconds rather than weeks. And the poor workers are liberated to focus on more productive labours.
Automation offers scale. I’m learning Italian using Duolingo.com. The lessons are online, so available anytime 24/7 from a phone or PC. Unlike a human teacher, Duolingo can instruct millions at the same time: currently 150 million people are registered. On a trip to Florence I was able to chat quite merrily to the locals using my Duolingo skills. Meraviglioso!
The range of tasks better undertaken by machines keeps expanding. New frontiers are crossed all the time. Artificial intelligence company DeepMind broke new ground by mastering the Chinese game Go. The game is like chess, but regarded as so complex only humans would be able to play it to a high standard. DeepMind created a self-learning agent to acquire the rules via observation only. In a recent series against world number one Ke Jie the silicon brain won all three matches.
Astonishingly, interest in Go has soared. Human players use DeepMind’s engine as inspiration for exploring new ways of playing the game. It’s injected new life into an ancient sport.
Automation can improve our lives in so many ways. Incredible products and services are out there, waiting for us to engage. We just need to overcome our skepticism and get stuck in.
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