Part of our job as futurists is to help organisations and individuals envisage how the forces shaping the future could deliver different future outcomes and to identify possible implications and action options within each scenario. There are many views of the future when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI) in the workplace and how it might impact the role of IT professionals in particular. Opinions and forecasts vary widely – with some suggesting the loss of 80 per cent of all jobs to automation within 20 years and others forecasting 50 per cent employment growth over the period. Within IT, some predict developer roles could be replaced by AI within a decade while others suggest IT could be the biggest global profession by 2030.
The reality is that no one knows – we are far too early in the evolution and application of AI to know how far and how fast it could spread and how society will react. So, rather than obsessing on predictions and forecasts, we prefer to prepare for a range of outcomes – looking at possible scenarios, and we use these “future stories” to highlight critical challenges and choices ahead that society needs to start preparing for today. In particular, we like to focus on identifying opportunities to use technology to enhance humanity and help unleash human talent in the workplace. In this article we ask: HHHow might AI impact IT work in the coming years?
To explore possible futures of the IT profession and its role in business, below we explore scenarios from 2019, 2021, 2023, and 2025.
IT assignment 2019: Help clients differentiate between narrow and deep AI
A potential IT “growth role” in 2019 might involve advising clients who have rushed the deployment of AI service software to cut costs and offended dozens of customers with the outcomes. For example, an unhappy internal client holds IT responsible, but the IT expert helps explain it wasn’t the algorithm, but its application that offended customers. Accustomed to receiving personal messages from the organisation, customers felt the automated communications were growing impersonal and showed a lack of understanding of their needs. A key issue was that the AI wasn’t trained to answer customers’ questions adequately, and couldn’t tell if the caller hand hung up because their query had been answered or if they had grown tired of being misunderstood. The IT professional’s role here is to help clients understand when to apply deep (i.e. fully trained customer service bots) versus narrow (simple, task-oriented algorithms) AI. This type of opportunity could grow quite rapidly as AI tools become affordable for even the smallest of firms.
IT assignment 2021: Disrupt C-suite hierarchies
By 2021, AI may have become so pervasive in business that it underpins every major strategy and operational decision. This could mean front-line IT staff being involved across every aspect of the business – guiding on options to achieve desired business outcomes at speed and then developing or configuring the solutions. From start-ups to multinationals, future organisations might run on an ecosystem of AI applications, which will enhance the status of IT workers and also call on them to use a diversity of skills and talents (including people skills and management abilities) to get the job done. With that said, the knife cuts both ways: CEOs and other management professionals will have to become more tech-savvy, and their roles will also encroach into the IT space. We could well see hybrid roles emerging with marketers trained to configure AI tools in the same way as they develop and run spreadsheets today.
IT assignment 2023: Learn and develop new skill sets
By 2023, in this scenario, software, hardware and most devices are self-monitoring, self-diagnosing, and self-healing. Innovations in 3D and 4D printing make it possible to design and repair your own machine (or have it fix itself), and have made IT more organic and personalised to each customer. Open sourced AI and blockchains are being used to sprout businesses entirely absent of workers. These “Distributed Autonomous Organisations” (DAOs) run entirely on algorithms alone, with all transactions completed using smart, self-executing contracts. These companies only call in IT specialists should the AI systems fail. Automation of IT work is the norm and most white-collar jobs have disappeared. In this future, IT pros must learn and develop new skills for the post-work world. One possible new job role would involve teaching. Not only will AI require a great deal of training, it will also drive teaching opportunities: teaching people about AI, how to work with AI, how to apply AI and even teaching AI how to interact with people.
IT assignment 2025: Create a very human workplace
The world of 2025 is very different for IT professionals. In this future, most jobs have been automated, and many human workers have been replaced. However, in the face of ubiquitous and somewhat omnipotent future technologies, some IT pros have evolved their offerings. Future IT firms might focus on helping clients learn when not to use technology. At times, the IT consultant may advise that it would be in the best interest of the organisation to unplug. Going offline is considered a luxury item in 2017; by 2025, with AI pushing productivity through the roof, disconnecting could be the key to sanity. An example IT requirement in 2025 might be to put the organisation on an “information vacation” where employees can put work aside in order to socialise, connect and reinvigorate relationships face to face. Recognising when not to use technology may become a key function of healthy businesses, giving IT a natural leadership role in creating a very human workplace.
Scenarios aren’t exhaustive representations of the future, but necessary wake up calls. Studying and creating diverse images of the future are an insurance policy of sorts against future surprises. Is it probable that by 2025 the main value-add of IT services will be its ability to shut off the technology? No. But it is a provocative image that drives home the idea that technology is not the enemy, but a highly malleable tool that works at our disposal, and its role in the workplace is up to us to decide.
Steve Wells, Rohit Talwar, Alexandra Whittington, Fast Future
Image Credit: Razum / Shutterstock