The dramatic rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning provokes intense debate amongst business leaders. So much so, we see conflicting arguments appear almost every day.
On one side are the techno-pessimists, who claim AI technologies will signal the loss of millions of jobs world-wide. A 2017 McKinsey Global Institute report revealed half of all UK and US jobs could be automated in the near future. Likewise, a 2016 Oxford Martin School study suggested 57% of jobs in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) area could be lost to digital automation in the next twenty years.
With statistics as distressing as these, it’s little wonder that media reports reacting to such figures shock the public into believing that the adoption of AI will lead to economic, social and psychological Armageddon. But gloom-ridden predictions surrounding new technologies rarely turn out to be as bad as expected.
Should we fear technological transformation?
“The key to artificial intelligence has always been the representation”
Fears of unemployment caused by technological advancement is not something particularly new. Whether it be the Luddites, John Maynard Keynes or The Guardian’s Economics Editor, fear that machines will replace all human labour has existed since the start of technological transformation — from the first steam powered cotton loom, to the deep learning AI systems we see today.
However, we also know that when the first machine age happened, the number of occupations lost to technology was replaced with hundreds of new careers which didn’t previously exist. Likewise, whilst post-industrialisation led to job losses in manufacturing and heavy industry, new roles in different sectors were created in their place. Robots may make some jobs redundant in the market, but they also tend to create new ones.
In addition, AI will often just replace the tedious tasks that negatively impact productivity in our roles — it can be an enhancer. If AI lives up to its true potential in the workplace, it will not only help to free up time to produce better outcomes, it will allow us to do more positive, meaningful work.
More AI, more jobs
“AI could destroy a lot of jobs in some sectors and create a need to retrain people. But AI could also be one of the solutions to better train these people and help them find new jobs”
Take roles within businesses today. Twenty years ago the roles of UX Designer, Python Developer and Digital Marketing Manager would not have been understood even by the most forward-thinking hiring manager. Today, these roles are common in all but the most traditional organisations. The implementation of AI is likely to have the same effect. We may see some job losses in specific sectors. But, considering what happened in the past, it is likely the effects of digital transformation won’t be as catastrophic as many fear. In fact, AI technology could help to sustain, or even grow the job market.
For example, if the negative predictions about AI were true, then why, even with increasing AI solutions being adopted by businesses, are we not seeing significant job losses today? Most western nations are, in fact, experiencing the opposite effect. Take the UK. According to government statistics released earlier this year, the UK has a 75.7% rate of employment, the highest since records began.
The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2018 report also predicts a more positive future for the world of work. It predicts the rise of AI, machine learning algorithms and robots will create 133 million new jobs by 2022. Compare this with the 75 million jobs set to be replaced, and it suggests AI technologies could be the driver of positive change. Not just good news for businesses, but for people in work too.
The current impact of AI
“More and more industries are being influenced by AI ... our society as we know it is transforming.”
Most consumers are already experiencing the positive impact of AI in our day-to-day lives. From the machine learning algorithms built into Netflix and Spotify, tailoring recommendations based on our consumption habits, to smart home assistants which help to organise our lives, AI has a strange habit of augmenting our experience. And the rate at which consumers learn to adopt and trust these powers of AI is rapid. Whilst this trust is fast-gained by consumers, widespread acceptance of AI in the workplace hasn’t quite travelled at the same rate of knots.
Despite this, we are starting to see the first shoots which suggest the true business potential of AI. Both AI and machine learning can help to improve judicial systems, the healthcare sector, climate change, inequality, human rights abuses, financial markets, transportation and infrastructures, social media, and even cucumber detection, as suggested in Nick Polson and James Scott’s latest book, ‘AIQ: How artificial intelligence works and how we can harness its power for a better world’.
How far AI can ultimately go in improving the world around us is unknown. What is known, however, is the world of work is going to change beyond comprehension.
Upskilling for the future
“Automation and AI have the potential to support the development of quality work.”New jobs created through businesses implementation of AI will theoretically require new skills. It is likely people currently in work may need to upskill to adapt to rapid technological change, whilst education will need to shift in order to meet the demands of a shifting, dynamic workforce.
The skills required to be prosperous over the coming years are, however, those which have always been requisite for success. From critical thinking to creativity, strategy to imagination, the most vital components of a future worker remain the same core soft skills. Learning how to use new technology will also be key, but with highly developed emotional and strategic intelligence, this aspect of the future of work will likely be the simplest. And ultimately, the work of the future will require the skills that give greater meaning to our roles within a business.
“As a society, we must be absolutely committed to people finding employment in productive and meaningful…jobs.”In the fullness of time, current fears surrounding AI will begin to seem misguided. Throughout history, people have lived in fear of everything from the printing press, to the calculator. And though AI is arguably the most transformative of all emerging technologies today — perhaps the most impactful since the internet — there is little to fear if society, governments, and individuals commit to respecting fulfilling work that provides a sense of purpose, and embraces human intelligence, as Dembski suggests.
Organisations, and therefore people, will choose what role AI performs in our societies, economies, environments, and in the world of work. It’s important that we make the right choices for a better future state.
Not only is it predicted AI will increase the number of jobs in the market, it is also set to improve our cities, infrastructure and health; as well as augmenting our time at work, making us more effective and productive, and our work more meaningful.
There are unintended consequences to innovation, and the dangers of AI relate to humans not making the right choices on how to use it for the betterment of society, individuals, economies, and labour markets. Ultimately, the true business potential of AI, for both companies and people, is infinite – it’s up to humans to make the right decision on how to best use the potential.