Humans vs robots: the battle for the workplace

‘Welcome to your obsolescence,' shouts the New York Times Book Review with a picture of robots doing all the office work, except for one suited man mopping the floor. ‘Half of all jobs will be automated in the next two decades,’ insists a serious Oxford Martin School study. And Elon Musk gets credit for igniting the latest frenzy with his crafty comment about ‘summoning the demons’.

As thinking machines – narrow artificial intelligence, technically, or plain AI – work their way into every cubicle and cranny of the workplace, the volume is cranked up, the debate is blaring, ‘Is AI good or evil?’ But this may be entirely the wrong debate. It’s certainly not a productive debate. And AI is all about productivity.

At the last count, according to Bloomberg Beta's Shivon Zilis, there are at least 2,529 companies racing to develop worthwhile AI products. Google, Facebook, Amazon and Baidu are in the lead, and assuming history remains our guide, these companies won’t stay there.

>See also: Beyond the sci-fi scaremongering: the AI revolution will be by humans, for humans, and it's happening now

Experience demonstrates that the ‘good-evil’ question is primarily a function of marketing and trending sentiment. Commercial entities are increasingly focused on AI for the future impact on the bottom line. It’s all about ROI.

Just as a previous generation made vast fortunes refining hydrocarbons, managing the delta between investor and borrower needs, and electrifying the world, today's AI leaders want to carve out the niche that will build the future’s fortunes – ‘cognifying’ the world and transforming our digital lives.

We know already that machine learning – think of this as restricted AI – is handling dozens of valuable business activities. Cutting back the energy we use in our homes (Nest). Scheduling our meetings for us ( Ridding our email of spam (Mailwise). Helping us acquire knowledge and clients quicker (Scredible). Suggesting new connections based on our career changes (LinkedIn). Instantly translating our sentences into the language of our recipients (Google). And turning stats from sports games into genuine news stories (Automated Insights).

Across every industry, there are promises on the horizon that have the potential to positively impact our productivity and our lives just as miraculously as, first the gas lamp, and then the electric light bulb, drove the productivity of the industrial revolution.

But just as the candle makers saw their jobs snatched away, many millions of well-educated workers see their livelihoods in jeopardy today. Most of them are mistaken, but the fear is real. This begs the question: who are ‘they’?

Journalists will face dim job prospects as robots learn to write as well if not better. Waiters will be replaced, certainly tips will decline, as orders are placed over iPads set on tabletops and busboys and girls deliver and clear.

Accountants will find that software has replaced them, and that software neither miscalculates nor leaves the risk of a government audit to chance. Interpreters will sit idle, because anybody in any language can communicate across the globe, in any language, and in real-time.

>See also: Inside the virtual workforce: an army of software robots revolutionising enterprise innovation

Marketeers will be slammed by programmatic buying software that eliminates the judgment for which they were once valued, much as is already happening with stockbrokers and traders.

The list is endless. It impacts job categories once considered safe. No more. The hard truth is: many thousands of people will find their job position deleted, or their skillsets replicated by a computer at lower cost.

But there is a bright side. Millions of people will also find that new jobs are opening up to support, advance and manage the new AI-enabled workplace. These are different jobs, skilled jobs, functions that require new skills; skills, ironically, best defined and taught by – you guessed it – AI-driven systems.

The reality is that the ‘is AI good or evil?’ debate is the wrong debate to be having. Absent a digital meltdown or other harbinger of the oft-predicted dystopian future, technology will march on. Quantum computing will become a reality and AI will evolve. This is what technology does. What it has always done.

And, what we humans have managed to do, to a greater or lesser extent, reasonably well over the past 65,000 years is adapt. Therefore, the question that should be asked by those future-focused folk, indeed the central question of our time, is: how do I align my skills with the AI-enabled economy?

This is the real question – itself best answered by considering two further questions: how do I fill my knowledge gaps to remain relevant? And how do I best prepare for the jobs of the future?

For all the jobs being displaced, new, and in many cases more fulfilling, jobs and career tracks are in constant creation. The most obvious realm is data. We're swimming in so much of it – 2.5 quintillion more bytes a day, says IBM – that today's data analysts will be unable to keep pace.

Indeed, McKinsey predicts that by 2018 there will be a shortage of data analysts. This field is not for everyone, but it should be great for analytical-minded professionals. But who are they?

Our broken and outdated education system has proven unequal to the task of identifying individual talent and ability. First we need to apply AI to fix this system. Naturally, data analysts are just an example, the tip of the iceberg.

It is going to require new knowledge that enables individuals to become valued and valuable assets moving forward. To meet the need, professionals in the workplace will have to fill knowledge gaps created by the pace of change. Fortunately there are companies working on apps, programs, and training designed to broaden our understanding and narrow the gap.

>See also: Man vs machine: productivity, creativity and job creation

Currently, over 171 universities in 26 countries are offering advanced degrees in AI to prepare the next generation for these as yet undefined, or ill-defined opportunities. This is just the start. Everyone with an internet connection can have access to a personal AI that works for us around the clock, affordably and efficiently.

In fact, transformative and disruptive AI-enabled apps are evolving to meet the future’s promise, transporting us from a reliance on the old educational institutions to future-ready training programs that give us just what we need to know, when we need to know it.

This is the future. Good or evil is no more part of the picture than the concept was for earlier innovations such as fire and the wheel. This is the future, and we must be prepared to embrace it.


Sourced from Colin Lucas-Mudd, CEO at Scredible

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...