Three things you need to know
In the winter 2017 issue of Western Equipment Dealer, Futurist Richard Worzel told us about the three things you need to know about Artificial Intelligence. In part 2, Worzel concludes his fascinating look into the future and the changes we can expect – changes that, for the record, are well underway.
As written in the magazine last year, Worzel wrote, “Pay attention. Your life is about to be significantly changed by Artificial Intelligence (AI), whether you want it to be or not.”
What Happens Next?
There have been a lot of news stories and popular pieces about how the robots (meaning AI and automation, generally) are coming to get us. A much-cited 2013 study done by Oxford University academics Carl Frey and Michael Osborne said that “According to our estimates, about 47 percent of total U.S. employment is at risk.”
Almost half of all jobs in the U.S. are susceptible to automation, according to Frey and Osborne. And whether they are precisely right, or even close, that’s an enormous disturbance in the force of our society and economy. But will it happen that way?
Based on my almost 30 years of study and work as a futurist, and based on the best analyses I can find, I can confidently say: yes and no.
Yes, the consequences will be dramatic. No, they don’t have to decimate the labor force and therefore the economy and society. But they will produce some enormous challenges for which we are not ready.
There’s a long-running debate between the groups that I’ve called the neo-Luddites, who say that automation will destroy our jobs and our society, and the technologists, who insist that as old jobs disappear, new ones will be created to replace them. I’ve explored this at some length in an earlier blog, The Beginning Death Cycle of the Customer. This is a legitimate debate and one that’s been going on for at least two centuries.
My feelings are that, yes, new jobs are being created even as the old ones are being destroyed but:
- Jobs are appearing and disappearing with increasing rapidity, which makes it hard to keep up on the credentials you need in order to stay employed.
- The best new jobs have very high standards, requiring specific kinds of hard-to-get credentials, and thus are not available to the vast majority of people displaced from existing jobs.
- Many of the jobs created are relatively low-level service jobs that just don’t pay very well.
I’ve been writing about this for more than 20 years, as you can read in the following excerpt from a book I published in 1994 entitled Facing the Future: The Seven Forces Revolutionizing Our Lives:
“This is not a problem that will burst on the scene in the next five or ten years. Humans are still capable of offering a flexibility, initiative, and creativity that machines cannot duplicate. But at some point, whether it’s twenty years away or one hundred, I’m afraid that the time will come when there are very few jobs that computers can’t do better, faster, cheaper, and more reliably than humans. As that day approaches, we will be confronted with several problems.
“In the first place, we will need a new economic system. Much as it grieves me to say so, free market capitalism may be dying, for it pays only those who are part of the production process. If virtually no one is part of this process, all the fruits of production will belong to those who own the machines – a recipe for the peon-and-aristocracy patterns of Third World economies. But where will the machine owners find their customers? People can’t be consumers unless they have money to spend.”
I didn’t use the term “the 1 percent” in that book, but that’s clearly who I was referring to when I described them as an emerging aristocracy.
So, yes, many jobs will be affected, many jobs will be eliminated, and many people will have to find a new way to work, all of which sounds disastrous.
And yet, that’s not all of the story.
The Borg versus The Hybrid
In an earlier blog, entitled I, Cobot, I explored the interaction between robots and humans and concluded that they are more productive together than either can be on their own. This is broadly true of AI and automation and humans as well.
As I said at the outset of that blog, reality is messy and people are good at messy situations whereas AI isn’t. On the other hand, AI is good at numbers and in-depth scrutiny using multivariate analysis. Combining the two kinds of strengths – real world flexibility plus analytic rigor – would produce a better result for everyone.
What’s more, every analysis that I’ve read about this issue basically says that increased productivity means that we can produce the same amount of stuff (goods and services) with fewer people. However, increased productivity could also mean that the same number of people can produce much more stuff.
I call these two different models The Borg (yes, from Star Trek) versus The Hybrid.
In the Borg model, automation moves in and shoves people aside, throwing them out of work and “resistance is futile.”
In the Hybrid, AI works in cooperation with humans to maximize the strengths of each, and to use increased productivity to increase their output. “Increase output and revenues” is the motto for this model.
When I first introduced this idea to a group of professionals in a keynote address at a conference in the summer of 2017, they asked how this would work in the real world. For instance, many of the conferees were lawyers. They asked, why should we continue to employ paralegals and junior lawyers when ROSS or other legal AIs can do the job better, faster and cheaper?
Rather than answering the question specifically and directly, I answered indirectly and generally. I suggested that when someone’s job was going to be eliminated by automation, that rather than just escorting the person involved off the premises, that the organization sit them down and say something like this:
“Bob, you know that our new AI has taken over the work you were doing. Ordinarily, we’d give you eight-weeks’ notice and say goodbye. Instead, we want you to take that eight weeks and think about what else you could do that would help us to serve our clients better. And in particular, we’d like you to think about how you could work with us to make this new AI even more valuable – and you with it.
“In short, we want you to invent a new job for yourself. Your experience with us has been valuable, you know our business and our clients, and we’d like you to help us become even more successful. Come back to us in five to seven weeks with some thoughts or a proposal that we can explore together. Can you do that?”
It’s possible that Bob (or whomever) can’t come up with a good enough answer to stay employed – but I suspect that, faced with unemployment as an alternative, Bob would get really creative and might well come up with a completely unexpected and imaginative new way that he could become even more productive, especially if challenged to learn how to leverage the newfound strengths of the AI.
And, what’s more, if organizations became much more productive, then prices would come down, clients and consumers would be able to buy more, and the general standard of living would go up – just as it did in the Industrial Revolution.
A Possible Hybrid Example
Suppose, for instance, that Bob is a junior lawyer in a firm that has just started using an AI to do legal research and legal briefs. The obvious thing to do would be to get rid of Bob. However, if the firm does that, and maintains that approach, who will emerge to become the senior lawyers later on?
Meanwhile, what else could Bob do? Well, if what people do best is handle the messy stuff, suppose that Bob steps back and considers if there’s a more creative way to solve the legal issues for a particular client. And, sifting through the brief created by the firm’s AI, he looks at what kinds of cases have been cited as precedents.
Next, he makes use of the AI to look for off-beat or unusual settlements or outcomes, and assesses whether they would be preferable to the straightforward resolution being prepared. In other words, he uses the AI to leverage human creativity.
If Bob can come up with a superior result for the client by enlarging the possible outcomes, and offering a better, more unconventional approach, he will complement the work done by the AI to get a better, more valuable result.
Will This Solve All Problems?
Our world is about to be turned upside down. If we aren’t proactive about how we manage this, then lots of people could become unemployed and possibly unemployable. In turn, this would mean that lots of people couldn’t afford to buy as much from companies, which would mean those companies wouldn’t make as much in profits. And that, in turn, would mean that the value of such companies would go down, making the owners poorer.
There’s a cliché in the stock market that a rising tide lifts all boats, meaning that everyone makes money in a bull market. The converse is true as well: in a falling economy, everyone gets hurt. Therefore, even those people who fall into the 1 percent should be thinking about how we can embrace the Hybrid model of AI + Humans, not because it’s the moral and kind thing to do (which it is) but because it’s the smart and selfish thing to do.
If, instead of just saying that this is happening and doing nothing about it, we instead all treat it as an opportunity to create a more prosperous society, then everyone benefits. The alternative is potential economic chaos, social turmoil, and, possibly, riots and revolution.
So, is resistance futile? That’s up to us to decide.
RICHARD WORZEL is a chartered financial analyst (CFA), best-selling author, and one of today’s leading futurists, trend analysts, and innovation specialists. He is also a professional member of the World Future Society. Worzel helps corporations and industry associations plan intelligently for the future. His client list includes Coca-Cola, Ford, IBM, Bell, the U.S. Navy Department of Medicine & Surgery, the National Research Council, the Clerk of the House of Commons of Canada, among many others. To learn more, visit Future Search at http://www.futuresearch.com.