Automation is not the enemy

on AI, automation, jobs


Recent headlines would have us believe that artificially intelligent automation is soon going to lay waste to huge swathes of the global workforce.

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney was quoted as saying 15million UK jobs faced being automated. A White House report said it would be anywhere between nine and 47 per cent of US jobs.

It's time for a bit of perspective. We are not facing an imminent workplace apocalypse. Not for most people in office jobs today.

The real picture is not nearly as black and white. It is not going to be us versus the robots in a fight for our livelihoods-not yet anyway. Instead, now is an opportunity for us to become better at doing things by learning to work with robots.

For most knowledge workers, technologies such as artificial intelligence are more likely to augment how we work rather than steal our jobs.

And we already apply such 'augmented intelligence'. Mapping apps that use AI to work out the best route for us. Photo software that analyses images to identify content so we can search on objects or scenes rather than sift through manually. Social media that use what they know about us to personalise our experience. Google search. Amazon shopping. Alexa, Siri, Cortana.

IBM's Watson AI platform is being deployed in industries including healthcare, education, finance, commerce and IoT. It also famously beat the human champions of TV quiz show Jeopardy! in 2011, winning the $1 million prize.

Watson is helping cancer doctors make better decisions by analysing patient information against vast amounts of complex data. Elsewhere, it crunches through case histories, medical journals, health records, notes, and patient information to assist with diagnoses and treatments.

The aim is not to replace doctors with robots but to improve outcomes and reduce the one in five rate of wrong diagnoses.

The aim is to allow more people globally to have access to best of breed clinical care. Another health tech innovator is Intuitive Surgical whose da Vinci robotic systems help surgeons perform operations in less invasive ways and with greater precision and flexibility than humanly possible.

IBM's Watson artificial intelligence platform competes on TV show Jeopardy!Reducing the amount of time it takes to digest huge amounts of data is one of AI's most obvious strengths.

Arria is business software that can analyse data and produce reports in natural language, partnering with IBM Watson for question answering functionality.

Kensho can answer questions from financial traders and bankers, and deliver market reports and insight based on instantaneous analysis of huge piles of data.

Given IBM's long established reputation as an AI pioneer, it is interesting to note that it's current approach is based on the idea of 'augmented' rather than 'artificial' intelligence, describing it as 'the critical difference between systems that enhance and scale human expertise rather than those that attempt to replicate all of human intelligence'.

Deloitte flip it around to Intelligence Augmentation - IA rather than AI - but the point is the same: "With intelligence augmentation, the ultimate goal is not building machines that think like humans, but designing machines that help humans think better."

Automation will, of course, have an impact on our jobs. But, again, how it will affect global workforces and wider society is not black and white.

Sure, Carney didn't pull his punches in his speech: "The fundamental challenge is, alongside its great benefits, every technological revolution mercilessly destroys jobs and livelihoods - and therefore identities - well before the new ones emerge."

It was actually Carney's colleague, Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane, who suggested the 15million figure in a speech a month earlier. And Haldane went on to note that, historically, technological progress has not damaged jobs but rather boosted wages as skills shift upwards.

Debates over the impact of technology on jobs, he points out, have raged since before the invention of the wheel. The danger is the 'hollowing out' of jobs with a widening gap between high and low skilled workers.

There was similarly alarming coverage of research by Oxford University and Deloitte that predicted 35 per cent of jobs in the UK were at high risk of automation over the next two decades.

Not so much was reported, though, on their further research, in which the gloomy hypothetical picture was compared with real changes in the workplace over the last 15 years.

The result is a far more optimistic outlook for what automation will really mean for work and employment. The study found that while technology had contributed to the loss of 800,000 lower-skilled jobs, it had helped to create 3.5million higher-skilled jobs.

These new jobs paid £10,000 more per year, on average, resulting in an estimated £140billion wages boost to the UK economy.

This is a view shared by IBM. In a response to a White House Request For Information on the potential impact of AI and automation, the tech giant highlighted how "history suggests that new technologies like AI result in higher productivity, higher earnings, and overall job growth.

In particular, we believe that new companies, new jobs, and entirely new markets will be built on the shoulders of this technology".

It adds: "Our perspective is that AI enables a partnership between people and machines that boosts productivity, fosters new discoveries, and frees up resources that could be put to better use. While, in delivering on that promise, AI may displace jobs to other activities, it does not replace them. While, in pursuit of that partnership, AI certainly needs to be applied with care and thought, the risks that have been identified with it are often overstated and they can in any case be managed and mitigated."

The fear is of what economist John Maynard Keynes called 'technological unemployment' which comes about 'due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour'.

Businesses and governments do have some degree of control over how automation will affect industries and the people working in them, as well as a responsibility to help people and communities adapt to change.

As the Bank of England's Carney said in his speech: "Because technology and trade are constantly evolving and can lead to rapid shifts in production, the commitment to re-skilling all workers must be continual."

Bank of England Governor Mark CarneyKey among new skills must surely be the ability to work alongside technology - an understanding of how to augment one's intelligence to be more productive. Those who master these skills first will be in high demand and will garner influence within their workplaces.

Keynes also famously predicted that economic progress would mean a 15-hour working week, leaving us to lead lives of leisure.

It's hard to see this vision becoming a reality any time soon, but the underlying logic is more sound than ever. Using technology and automation to supplement our capabilities does hold out the possibility of making our work more productive and meaningful by taking care of the mundane tasks which make up surprisingly large parts of our day.

Technology is getting smarter in ways that can make us smarter. It's time to embrace the opportunity to bring augmented intelligence into your office.

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