December 15, 2016 - Work marches on. It has been shaped by multiple “revolutions" over the years: agricultural, industrial, and computer/internet/information. With each innovation and application of new technologies, the nature of work evolves. Today, the media has speculated on the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) on work—often framing the issue as humans vs. machines. While the media likes a good battle, I envision the future of work will be human + machine.
The advent of AI
Some have called 2016 the year of AI due to the significant advances in enabling technologies, the proliferation of AI companies (one research firm counts 987), and the fact that all of the technology majors have made significant AI investments. Amidst some hype that robots will take away the majority of future jobs, the World Economic Forum felt compelled to research and write a report entitled, “Why Automation is Not the End of the World. Here's why."
AI has risen from being an interesting and speculative technology to what is now becoming a legitimate C-suite and board room topic. Both Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal have recently run AI-focused articles for their primarily senior-level business audiences. Further, McKinsey has written about where machines could replace humans, which has prompted senior business executives to discuss how their companies should prepare for this new age.
Senior executives will first need to identify where AI and robotics could transform their organizations and then put a plan in place to migrate to new business processes enabled by automation. This business interest and investment in AI and automation will certainly continue, but the future of work is about much more than simply automation; humans will continue to play a vital role in the future of work.
To understand the impact of AI and robotics on the future of work, it is helpful to begin by looking to a fundamental principle in the field of economics: comparative advantage. This principle basically says that a person (or machine, or company, or country) should focus on doing what they do comparatively better than others. This comparison should not be done in an absolute manner, but rather in a relative manner. The optimal result and usage of resources would be for each to do what they do comparatively better than others.
Just as machines have a comparative advantage in doing arithmetic relative to humans, humans have a comparative advantage in the fields of big picture judgment, imagination, creativity, and relationships (to name but a few). This principle implies that—as this next wave of AI and robotics transpires—the real value of humans will be revealed at work.
According to the HBR report: “As machine intelligence improves… the value of human judgment skills will increase. Using the language of economics, judgment is a complement to prediction and therefore when the cost of prediction falls [due to the rise of AI], demand for judgment rises. We'll want more human judgment."
Humans have an understanding of the dynamic nuances inherent in working relationships and the ability to respond and adapt to those nuances. This is where strong managers and mentors excel. What is also true—and more certain with the advent of AI and robotics in the work environment—is that machines will push humans to specialize more in our comparative advantage areas. This means we will have the opportunity to do even more “human" work, interpersonal and non-routine tasks that showcase our creative and social intelligence—which is what makes us resilient and adaptive to change.
How can humans and machines interact to augment the strengths of each other?
Machines need to stimulate people's ability to create new insights, challenge their own thinking, and continuously reframe their understanding. In this way, the future of work will be the “best of both worlds," with humans and machines each contributing their respective comparative advantages to form a formidable team.
The powerful force of capitalism and the inexorable advance of technology will lead to the future of work being human + machine. Everyone with an Internet connection can have access to a personal AI that works around the clock, affordably and efficiently. Businesses will use AI-based assistants to enable their employees to not only be more productive, but also to improve end-customer experiences and gain advantages in the market. An added benefit will be that humans will enjoy their jobs more.
Although we are only at the beginning of the AI era, we are starting to see how AI can change industries, improve productivity, and benefit a new generation of employees. Good or evil is no more part of the equation than it was for earlier innovations such as fire and the wheel. This is the future, and we must prepare to embrace it.
We envision the future of work combining the best elements of humans and machines working together. Imagine AI assistants helping contact center agents be more effective dealing with customer interactions; helping agents with claims processing; helping purchasing agents; helping health services providers; helping sales representatives. Humans + machines will better delight customers, better grow the top line, and better improve the bottom line.
Beyond transforming business, the combination of humans + machines has the opportunity to solve humanity's most challenging issues related to the environment, healthcare, education, global economic disparity and more.
Over 400 years ago, Galileo asked the question: “Who indeed will set the bounds of human ingenuity?" History has taught us this boundary does not exist; machines will help us raise it even higher. Yes, the future of work with humans + machines working together will achieve great things.