Viewpoint: The AI Future Is Not Dystopian

May 3, 2019

It’s not quite as allegorical as the renowned English author Charles Dickens may have posited in his well-crafted prose, but the White House convened in December to explore the threat that AI poses to put American workers out of jobs. With the summit themed “Industries of the Future,” it was clear that organizers were spinning more of a Dickens-esque tale of dread, woe, and social satire than the progressive innovation that many know AI to be, poised to revolutionize our global marketplace and unlock untold amounts of business opportunities.

So despite many factions of the media and industry still conjuring fear on the issue, it came as no surprise to those in the trenches of the AI revolution that Gartner reported its 2019 CIO survey of more than 3,000 executives in 89 countries found that AI implementation grew a staggering 270% in the past four years, and upwards of 37% in the past year alone. This, in part, has been driven by the potential increase in AI-driven business value for global companies, which Gartner forecasted to reach almost $4 trillion by 2022.

Now, that is not to say that there will be no impact on the workforce. In Deloitte’s 2018 Global Human Capital Trends findings on what it termed the “readiness gap,” 72% of respondents think adopting AI is important for their business, which is additionally reinforced by the People & Organization group’s research at PWC revealing that 63% of companies are rethinking the whole role of their human resources department in light of the impact AI will have on their organizations.

Skill needs will shift

Indeed, we will encounter a shift of in-demand skill sets, and the atmosphere of many industries are likely to take on a different hue. For instance, in today’s business climate, every organization could measurably benefit from an end-to-end automation backbone. Just like the central nervous system in human body, organizations need an automation spine to which all extremities, spanning across HR, FMS, CRM and IT Operations.

Many who oppose AI choose to take a narrow view – a static “snapshot in time” of the workforce – to better serve their purpose. But in doing so, they ignore the incredibly urgent need for businesses to rethink and automate how they deliver corporate services – not just to thrive, but often to survive. Prior to AI even entering the mainstream, we have seen a near 90%  turnover of the Fortune 500 over a 60 year period. So this cycle of change isn’t new, even if the key drivers of it – whether AI, machine learning, deep learning, or cognitive technology – are.

Of math and men

Therefore, I would propose that the harsh criticism of AI is more an indictment of math than of men. Even as early as 1936, Alan Turing concluded that “It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence.” And that is essentially what AI has become, a mathematical solution – or machine – that, when applied to the mountains of data our global society and business community have accumulated, can help make sense of past events, while also enabling faster, better, more predictive decision-making to generate more positive outcomes for the innumerable situations we will inevitably face at work, or in life.

As Charles Darwin proposed in the Descent of Man, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” To limit AI’s impact at job replacement is to limit the PC’s impact at digitizing documents. The computer has certainly made math instantaneous, but has not put CPAs or even math teachers out of work. As a tool, software has opened up creativity to the masses, but has not eliminated the need for talented artists with a penchant for design and creative flair.

A replacement for tasks

AI is not a replacement for people, but for tasks. The need for their skills and application of them still remains, but the way they actually conduct their work has and will continue to change.

Is it though, as bleak as Dickens portrays life for workers in the newly industrialized world in Hard Times?:

“It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.”

Create more

As a growth business with the potential to spread across industries, AI actually stands to open up more business opportunities than close them, catalyzing yet another impending revolution to cascade across business and culture. Yes, automating certain business operations will reduce or eliminate the need for many rote tasks – just as technological innovations before it. But where autonomic and cognitive systems stand to shine, more than any predecessors, is in their ability to create – new ideas, new solutions, new streams of revenue, new industries entirely – and with it, new roles for workers to direct and harness these new creations.

Certainly, those of us that usher in this technology must demonstrate concern for its effect on humans and careful consideration for their livelihoods, particularly with the inherent biases of anything made by man. As Fei-Fei Li, professor of computer science and director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, aptly said, “However autonomous our technology becomes, its impact on the world — for better or worse — will always be our responsibility.”

Now that, to me, is certainly more Darwin than Dickens. And I am excited to see the positive impact that AI can bring to our world in 2019, and beyond.