In the late 1960s and early 70s, the first computer-aided design (CAD) software packages began to appear. Initially, they were mostly used for high-end engineering tasks, but as they got cheaper and simpler to use, they became a basic tool to automate the work of engineers and architects.
According to a certain logic, with so much of the heavy work being shifted to machines, a lot of engineers and architects must have been put out of work, but in fact just the opposite happened. There are far more of them today than 20 years ago and employment in the sector is supposed to grow another 7% by 2024.
Still, while the dystopian visions of robots taking our jobs are almost certainly overblown, Josh Sutton, Global Head, Data & Artificial Intelligence at Publicis.Sapient sees significant disruption ahead. Unlike the fairly narrow effect of CAD software, AI will transform every industry and not every organization will be able to make the shift. The time to prepare is now.
Shifting Value to Different Tasks
One of the most important distinctions Sutton makes is between jobs and tasks. Just as CAD software replaced the drudgery of drafting, which allowed architects to spend more time with clients and coming up with creative solutions to their needs, automation from AI is shifting work to more of what humans excel at.
For example, in the financial industry, many of what were once considered core functions, such as trading, portfolio allocation and research, have been automated to a large extent. These were once considered high-level tasks that paid well, but computers do them much better and more cheaply.
However, the resources that are saved by automating those tasks are being shifted to ones that humans excel at, like long-term forecasting. ““Humans are much better at that sort of thing,” Sutton says. He also points out that the time and effort being saved with basic functions frees up a lot of time and has opened up a new market in “mass affluent” wealth management.
Finally, humans need to keep an eye on the machines, which for all of their massive computational prowess, still lack basic common sense. Earlier this year, when Dow Jones erroneously reported that Google was buying Apple for $9 billion — a report no thinking person would take seriously — the algorithms bought it and moved markets until humans stepped in.
Another aspect of the AI-driven world that’s emerging is the opportunity for machine learning to extend the capabilities of humans. For example, when a freestyle chess tournament that included both humans and machines was organized, the winner was not a chess master nor a supercomputer, but two amateurs running three simple programs in parallel.
In a similar way, Google, IBM’s Watson division and many others as well are using machine learning to partner with humans to achieve results that neither could achieve alone. One study cited by a White House report during the Obama Administration found that while machines had a 7.5 percent error rate in reading radiology images and humans had a 3.5% error rate, when humans combined their work with machines the error rate dropped to 0.5%.
There is also evidence that machine learning can vastly improve research. Back in 2005, when The Cancer Genome Atlas first began sequencing thousands of tumors, no one knew what to expect. But using artificial intelligence researchers have been able to identify specific patterns in that huge mountain of data that humans would have never been able to identify alone.
Sutton points out that we will never run out of problems to solve, especially when it comes to health, so increasing efficiency does not reduce the work for humans as much as it increases their potential to make a positive impact.
Making New Jobs Possible
A third aspect of the AI-driven world is that it is making it possible to do work that people couldn’t do without help from machines. Much like earlier machines extended our physical capabilities and allowed us to tunnel through mountains and build enormous skyscrapers, today’s cognitive systems are enabling us to extend our minds.
Sutton points to the work of his own agency as an example. In a campaign for Dove covering sport events, algorithms scoured thousands of articles and highlighted coverage that focused on the appearance of female athletes rather than their performance. It sent a powerful message about the double standard that women are subjected to.
Sutton estimates that it would have taken a staff of hundreds of people reading articles every day to manage the campaign in real time, which wouldn’t have been feasible. However, with the help of sophisticated algorithms his firm designed, the same work was able to be done with just a few staffers.
Increasing efficiency through automation doesn’t necessarily mean jobs disappear. In fact, over the past eight years, as automation has increased, unemployment in the US has fallen from 10% to 4.2%, a rate associated with full employment. In manufacturing, where you would expect machines to replace humans at the fastest rate, there is actually a significant labor shortage.
The Lump of Labor Fallacy
The fear that robots will take our jobs is rooted in what economists call the lump of labor fallacy, the false notion that there is a fixed amount of work to do in an economy. Value rarely, if ever, disappears, it just moves to a new place. Automation, by shifting jobs, increases our effectiveness and creates the capacity to do new work, which increases our capacity for prosperity.
However, while machines will not replace humans, it’s become fairly clear that it can disrupt businesses. For example, one thing we are seeing is a shift from cognitive skills to social skills, in which machines take over rote tasks and value shifts to human centered activity. So it is imperative that every enterprise adapt to a new mode of value creation.
“The first step is understanding how leveraging cognitive capabilities will create changes in your industry,” Sutton says, “and that will help you understand the data and technologies you need to move forward. Then you have to look at how that can not only improve present operations, but open up new opportunities that will become feasible in an AI driven world.”
Today, an architect needs to be far more than a draftsman, a waiter needs to do more than place orders and a travel agent needs to do more than book flights. Automation has commoditized those tasks, but opened up possibilities to do far more. We need to focus less on where value is shifting from and more on where value is shifting to.
image credit: ted.com
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Inc.com
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Greg Satell is a popular speaker and consultant. His first book, Mapping Innovation: A Playbook for Navigating a Disruptive Age, is coming out in 2017. Follow his blog at Digital Tonto or on Twitter @Digital Tonto.