The development of ‘intelligent systems’ has led to the rapid appearance of an entirely new category of device, many of which would’ve been resigned to science fiction not so long ago. Usually being constructed upon some form of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) technology, intelligent systems can be defined as ‘technologically advanced machines which have the capability to interact with the world around them as well as, if not better than, a human being’. Smart technology is already starting to reformulate our home life, with appliances like the Roomba and virtual assistants like Amazon’s Echo proving to be immensely popular.
However, where these systems may prove to be most impactful will be through their deployment within our wider economy. We are currently on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution. One which will see these intelligent systems permeate their way into our work world en masse. The ground work for this is already in place, semi-intelligent robots have been utilised in industrial settings for decades. We are also now beginning to see the deployment of ‘smart’ chatbots in customer service environments, and automated decision-making based on big data and the context within it. These technologies stand to completely reformulate how we perceive ‘work’, bringing untold improvements in productivity, flexibility, efficiency, consistency and accuracy.
Unfortunately, like the industrial revolutions preceding it, the changes accompanying the fourth will not be universally beneficial. In the industrial revolution of the 1800s, a group who termed themselves as the ‘Luddites’ violently opposed the introduction of new textiles machines. They argued that the machines would lead to worker displacement, as it would be possible to match the output of twenty men with a group a quarter the size. It’s feared that the same issue will appear again in modernity – with intelligent tech posing an exponential threat to the livelihoods of billions. However, it doesn’t have to. If appropriate action is taken by our global leadership, it will be possible for the benefits of the new technology to be experienced by all.
The nature of the threat
It can be confidently said without exaggeration, that smart technology will affect every sector of the economy in some fashion. However, this doesn’t mean that every job is equally at risk. The composition of tasks carried out as part of a job greatly influences the likelihood of whether it will be replaced by automated systems. Those working in industries at the greatest risk of replacement spend a larger percentage of their day completing manual tasks that necessitate physical exertion, or routine tasks like administration, repetitive decision-making or basic problem solving.
The industries at the lowest risk of automation focus more on social and literary skills, which are comparatively less automatable. Developing nations – whose economies have a greater focus on the former – will be particularly hard hit. Analysis (opens in new tab) conducted by the International Labour Organisation stated that as much as 56 per cent of workers across Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam could be replaced by intelligent systems. In the UK, the figure as estimated by PwC (opens in new tab) stands at 30 per cent.
Thus, the fourth industrial revolution could lead to social stratification, further deepening the inequalities that exist in our society. We could potentially see a split between those unaffected by the changes, and those displaced by a range of AI techniques such as automated data-driven decisioning or Robotic Process Automation.
Is the threat overhyped?
It’s important that we consider the positive impacts that may be brought by the new technologies. When ATMs were introduced to banks in the 1970s, there were fears that they would eliminate the traditional human teller. However, the effect was the opposite. Data (opens in new tab) shows that in the period between 1980 and 2010, the number of bank tellers in the US rose from 500,000 to 550,000. This happened despite ATMs growing in number from a nominal figure to around 400,000 across the same period. This can be attributed to the efficiencies brought by ATMs. As it became less expensive to operate a bank branch, there was leeway to hire more tellers. Similarly, as cash handling became a less important part of the job, tellers took on an increased number of differing responsibilities, instead concentrating on tasks that require emotional understanding.
Automation will lead to the creation of new roles to maintain the systems that will appear. So, how can we best position ourselves to take advantage of these new jobs?
To best position, it’s important to start from the beginning; a reformulation of our education system that will take place in two strands.
The first of these will involve educating and training students so they are able to take roles directly working with these smart systems. Example roles of this type include; programmers, engineers and data analysts. This will involve a greater focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) subjects. In the same way that Information Technology has come to be considered a pillar of primary and secondary education, so must STEM subjects. This will have a positive effect on the economy too. There is currently a lack of workers with the requisite skill sets to implement AI systems, with 80% of respondents to a recent EY survey (opens in new tab) stating that this was the only thing hindering a greater uptake of AI.
We also need a greater focus on subjects which encourage creativity, social and emotional intelligence. Humans, for the foreseeable future anyway, will remain more suitable than smart systems for jobs which utilise these skills. Thus, with intelligent tech now handling roles consisting of repetitive data-driven tasks, human beings will be hired in roles based on their relationship building skills and imagination.
Employers wishing to maintain their advantage should seek to facilitate the retraining or upskilling of their current employees.
Beyond this, they should also look to design the deployment of the new technology with the intent of leveraging the corporate expertise in their key employees. However, institutions must also balance this with the aims of taking advantage of the cost savings and agility that maintain competitive advantage, and ensuring that AI can co-exist with new emerging workforce patterns
The fourth industrial revolution promises to transform our world to an untold magnitude. Like the introduction of any new technology, previously unforeseen improvements in efficiency will surely be brought. However, there is potential for it to lead to a deepening of the inequalities we currently face. This is further exacerbated by the emergence of global technology superpowers that have access to more data and aggressively adopt AI approaches. In order to make sure that the benefits of the technological boom are equitably spread, we must focus on educating and upskilling our populace, and designing work systems to account for human involvement in a manner that ensures traditional businesses remain competitive.
Imam Hoque, software leader, Quantexa (opens in new tab)
Image Credit: Geralt / Pixabay