“Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time” (Terry Pratchett)
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being rolled out in many guises throughout business. One instance of this is voicemail with some amusing results. One person recalls getting a voicemail message which said “I’m a user music to reach an audience” and, another example, “ — working with the Russian” but “I got killed”.
As the person said it’s hard to feel your career will be threatened by AI when you come across examples such as these.
In another irritating situation, a colleague recently got a call from a cell phone company which asked “will you pay your arrears in three days. Press 1 if this is correct.” When the person tried to say “what arrears?”, he was told that this is not a valid response. The colleague then phoned the company only to find a robot answered the phone. At this stage you feel you are probably having an Orwellian nightmare.
Will AI get “intelligent”?
There can be little doubt it will rapidly advance and predictions as to where it will go vary widely – some say that by the end of the next decade, robots will be as smart as humans.
Another school of thought maintains that as AI will not be able to learn creativity, real human emotion or have a human personality, so it will never replace humans.
AI relies on mountains of high quality data for it to be able to effectively run its algorithms. There is a relative dearth of this data at present.
Effectively, the sceptics say AI will always just be software and don’t be fooled by your robot declaring its love for you. It is software trying to mimic human behaviour.
It must also be remembered that there are many tasks that don’t need human intervention.
So, what happens to our jobs?
AI is one of the drivers of the fourth industrial revolution and it is instructive to look at the first three industrial revolutions to understand what we can learn.
The first one came in the late eighteenth century when man began mechanizing factories and agriculture. Urbanisation began to develop rapidly (from displaced farm workers) and there was social unrest as many jobs were lost and professions weakened. This led to substantial inequality of incomes as a few industrialists made fortunes, a middle class began to slowly emerge but the vast majority remained in poverty.
The second industrial revolution came a hundred years later and was led by inventions that made the ordinary person’s life much easier – electricity, the aeroplane, the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner and many more that created a surge in living standards. Universal franchise and recognition of unions also came into existence in the developed world. So significant were these changes, such as housewives spending 42 hours less a week on household chores, that they enabled women to enter the jobs market. In turn this rapidly grew the middle class and inequality decreased substantially. Clearly this second revolution grew employment and living standards.
Another important aspect is that the second industrial revolution was a work enabler whilst the first industrial revolution was a job replacer.
The third industrial revolution began in the 1980s with the rise of digitization and it has been similar in some areas to the first industrial revolution – the middle classes have regressed in the developed world whilst the top 1% has become wealthier. However, in developing countries, mainly Asia, hundreds of millions of jobs have been created as industrialization has rapidly rolled out there.
The fourth industrial revolution is expected to automate just under half of the jobs in the United States and thus be similar to the third revolution. How it will fare in places like China and India is difficult to predict. In South Africa business will benefit from the new technologies but the poorer communities will not have the skills to take advantage of opportunities offered by AI. Thus, inequality will continue and may get worse.
Overall, the last two hundred and fifty years has seen a massive upward change in the number of jobs created. The problem lies in the uneven timing of these changes – it took three generations in the nineteenth century for there to be real progress in growing jobs.
Whilst AI may sometimes seem comical at the moment, it is going to reduce and/or eliminate many jobs. But it will also create new employment opportunities. As a business owner, upskill your workers so they can be prepared for the changes that are already happening.