Which statement do you believe? Robots will wipe out our jobs. AI and robotics will make everything free. These extreme viewpoints are both vying for our attention.
Singularity University, which aims to solve our global grand challenges through exponential technologies, widely reports that AI is the world’s cure. Peter Diamandis, co-founder and chairman of the university, says “rapid demonitisation of the cost living” is earning his attention. Powered by technologies, he says, the cost of housing, healthcare, education and more will fall, “eventually approaching, believe it or not, zero”.
It’s easy to sensationalise superintelligence when you mix lofty institutional beliefs such as Singularity with fear from workers about the impact machines will have on their jobs.
Government ministers are right to show concern about the rise of unemployment and how the hollowing out of work might later affect skilled workers. But much talk embellishes and focuses on a future we can’t yet imagine. This is very early days – to use a cricket analogy, we're at lunchtime on the first day of a five-day match and we have a long way to go.
Why get to grips with AI now
1. Free people up
The important qualification here is that routine and narrow work is different from jobs. Humans have jobs, machines fulfil repetitive tasks. We’ve only scratched the surface of the work that can be automated. Corporate titans such as Facebook and Google have made rapid progress, but then it tails off – there are thousands of small and medium businesses that could benefit now.
To build a sense of urgency, just look at your customers’ traits. Thanks largely to the smartphone, they’re more demanding. By the power of the scrolling thumb they are more informed and therefore pickier. This is forcing us to reimagine the way we work.
Take the mightiest bank in the US, JP Morgan Chase & Co. With the help of machine learning it cut 360,000 hours of mundane finance work to a matter of seconds. The machine also helped the bank eradicate 12,000 mistakes made by human error every year.
Automating tasks frees up time for executives to deal with delicate customer cases that require acute problem-solving skills, empathy and creativity. Customers receive special attention instead of chat bots at the end of a phone line.
The impact of automation in professional services, where high-touch consultancy work is critical to quality service, is clear: automate the drudgery and reallocate time to doing more thoughtful work. It serves your customers better.
Once narrow routine work is automated, the working world will begin to look like the tapestry Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones weaved in their book, Clever: a handful of smart people creating enormous value. Problem is, clever people don’t like to be led. So expect to see more people working flexibly on their own terms, dipping in and out of meaningful gigs and enjoying a portfolio career.
2. Face up to the skills challenge
The rules of the game have been upended. Managers in their 50s are the only generation to have junior employees arguably better equipped to do their jobs.
So, if you're a senior manager and you're not making decisions where you engage fiercely with digital natives, you're likely to be making a whole bunch of mistakes.
There’s a huge disconnect between what managers know they should be doing and how effectively they’re doing it. We expect CIOs to lead that technological charge, but most aren’t. Fewer than 40% of those surveyed for Gartner’s 2016 CIO Agenda said they’re overseeing their company’s digital transformation efforts despite it being their biggest priority.
There are many barriers to managers using AI right now – human imagination, rules, regulations, time to think – but biggest of all is the ability to make sense of everything. When there’s a shift like we’ve seen with tech disruption today, it’s really hard to figure out what you need to do.
For some, AI is an outside-context problem – a curve ball with no point of reference. It’s like a remote islander spotting an aeroplane for the first time and thinking, “What is it? How should I feel about it?” Scottish writer Iain Banks sums up these problems as “the sort of thing most civilisations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop.”
It’s worth experimenting with technology right now because change is happening at the speed of light. You need to take personal responsibility for learning new skills. People have already been left behind by the digital revolution, but when it comes to AI we haven’t seen anything yet. This is not about educating people to deal with technology, this is about a seismic shift towards reskilling and lifelong learning. No repetitively routine and narrow work is safe. As you keep learning, businesses will keep automating – so get used to mastering new skills over and over again.