Q&A: AI and the future of business

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What impact will AI have on the world of work over the next 10-15 years?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) will disrupt industries of all kinds, from manufacturing to healthcare, but the technology’s most immediate impact will be felt by the workers supporting these industries. 

AI will find new efficiencies in almost any process-driven work, which will lead to better products and services, lower production costs and shorter supply chains. Over the course of this process, a vast number of jobs that are currently held by humans will be replaced. This will shake up the world of work more than any other technology has before (more so even than steam power in the first industrial revolution), pushing us into new thought-based roles that AI can’t yet handle.

What will/won’t AI be able to do?

AI is 100 times better than us at process-driven work, so it’s only a matter of time before repetitive and time-consuming jobs are outsourced to computers. However, the most sensitive applications, or those that deal with people directly, will still need a human to verify AI decisions. This is because the most common kind of AI - Machine Learning (ML) - still needs to be supervised and isn’t currently able to operate independently outside of fixed parameters provided by humans.  

Deep Learning (DL) is different from ML in that it has exponentially more processing ‘layers’ in its neural network, and, as a result, we lose the ability to explain how it reaches its conclusions. As Richard Dearden, the Machine Learning Lead for Fetch.ai, explains, “estimating the total effect of the weights connected to each attribute is pretty complicated for deep networks because there are lots of different paths through the network.”

This means that the most sensitive jobs (in government, healthcare etc.) will most likely require a ‘human in the loop’, as DL technology is not currently developed enough for us to trust it to operate independently.

Why should specialists be worried about AI?

You may think automation through AI will mostly affect jobs involving manual labour, time-intensive data entry or basic customer support, but anyone who specialises in one particular profession is actually in the firing line. 

Take a diagnostician, for example, which thanks to the TV show ‘House’ is now seen as a uniquely skilled profession that many might assume AI could not touch. A group of AI programmes could ‘hear’ and analyse a patient’s responses to interview questions, factor in their medical history, blood pressure and body temperature, check their ‘voice biometric’ to determine any minute changes in the way they speak, and compare all this to everything that’s been recorded in the history of medicine. The programmes could perform all these processes in a split second and use the results to recommend a tailored treatment plan

A startling number of specialisms like this rely on the repeated application of learned information becoming automated by AI, and the biggest risk for specialist workers is downplaying the danger facing them, when in fact these professions are no safer than others.

How can we respond to this change?

Traditional business models rely on decisions being made at the top of the hierarchy and those on the bottom simply doing what they’re told - which is exactly what AI will be best at. If we don’t move away from process-driven work that satisfies one particular function, we are sleepwalking into an employment crisis.

To avoid being replaced by AI technology we need to change the way we think about working, focusing on the attributes that make us most human - such as emotional intelligence and the ability to think generally. AI will be able to handle the majority of processes, but what it won’t be able to do is to fit those processes into the wider picture, or to understand what the data running through its systems means in the real world. 

At least for the moment, humans will have to provide guidance to AI programmes in the workplace, and that will require a new way of structuring organisations so that we can move into the new thought-based roles that AI will open up.

What can managers do to keep up with the times?

CEOs, senior executives and managers need to focus on promoting the most intangible assets of their employees by moving away from a hierarchical structure that encourages a blinkered attitude to work. 

Promoting leadership and individual responsibility in each and every employee will lead them to feel ownership for their work, understand how it contributes to the bigger picture and most importantly care about the company’s success. Managers need to relinquish control and encourage employees to make their own decisions based on freely available information, rather than simply pushing those decisions up the food chain.

This way, individuals can learn to become more confident about their work and their ability to lead a team of computers that will be incapable of big picture thinking. Our WEIRD framework at Pod Group promotes Wisdom, Emotional intelligence, Initiative, Responsibility and (self) Development (WEIRD), and aims to have all employees take greater ownership for their work. This will ease AI’s widespread integration into today’s workplace and move us into new jobs based on our ability to lead, instead of just replacing workers unable to operate outside their niche.

What will the future of work look like?

The shift towards an employment market where all process-driven work has been automated will be dramatic, but those able to adapt in time will experience massive improvements to existing roles and may move into entirely new jobs freed up by AI.

While a diagnostician may not be necessary in the initial stages of disease identification, for example, their expertise will be needed later as AI faces the challenges of the real world, such as patients who are scared of needles, don’t understand the procedures or haven’t disclosed certain information (like a family member’s addiction to prescription medication).

The future of work will look very different, and a typical office may only include a handful of people - there will however be far more people who work independently outside the office, thus ensuring the work done by AI makes sense in the real world. Just as in previous technological revolutions when steam power and combustion engines threatened to take everyone’s job, this technological leap forward will improve the working world massively, but only if we prepare ourselves now.

Charles Towers-Clark, Founder and Group CEO, Pod Group
Image Credit: Enzozo / Shutterstock