It seems like every week; a technology vendor tells me how their AI product will free workers from mundane jobs and enable them to do more exciting work. And, every week I respond the same way (though sometimes more diplomatically) ‘that is not true.’ As AI works its way through blue-collar jobs, lower-paid white-collar jobs and now into higher-paid professions, that sales pitch that falls flat. In theory, AI automation could free workers from the mundane and create new and more exciting jobs. But in reality, that will seldom happen, workers are made redundant.
Take blue-collar jobs for example. AI-driven robots are making a significant impact on the world of construction. Bricklaying was once a reasonably well paid and skilled job, today robots like the SAM100 can lay bricks automatically at three times the speed. Few if any bricklayers are celebrating the fact that they now have more interesting jobs, instead they are increasingly unemployed. AI that automates sales and call center workers have the same effect, fewer jobs.
The argument that AI creates more jobs is flawed from the get-go. If you automate a job then by default that job is removed from the pool of jobs available. Even if you move the workers impacted to other duties, the people you would have hired for that original work, no longer need to be engaged. As technologists, we need to get real about the real impact of AI and be a lot more honest and upfront about the actual effects on real peoples jobs and futures.
In over 20 years of advising and consulting to organizations around the world, I have never once, seen a business case that involves the altruistic premise of moving workers to better jobs. Business cases are all uniformly focused on more efficiency, lower costs, and headcount reduction.
Deep Analysis are proponents of the use of AI for business automation. We created a training course, we have advised many organizations, and we have even written a book on the topic. But we also believe in honesty and transparency. In our opinion, AI can be used (as it usually is) as a blunt instrument to reduce headcount. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Organizations, be they private or public, are driven to be more efficient, to do more with less. That is how the world works. Technologists, on the other hand, are encouraged to create and envision new systems, new tools, and new solutions. The disconnect comes between the potential of the technology and its application.
Not that it is a cure-all, but technology vendors need to do a much better job of articulating the practical potential of their products. Sales & Marketing teams need to become much more sophisticated and aligned with the customer. They need to understand not just the immediate problem a customer is trying to solve, but how they could transform their business. It seems obvious, but in fact, we rarely see that level of ambition.
Emerging technologies like AI & Blockchain have the potential to do more than fix today’s problems. They have the potential to disintermediate the way we fundamentally approach business operations. They provide us with the opportunity to rethink long-established methods of working entirely. And when we (excuse the cliché) ‘think outside the box’ or (even worse cliché coming up) ‘break the paradigm’ then-new opportunities do arise.
The first industrial revolution was powerful and enriched a few; but it took three generations before the benefits trickled down to the majority. In other words, the Luddites were right, the mechanization of labor was merely that, and it was and would be destructive for large swathes of the population for many years to come. Similarly, those that fear or resist the use of AI have very valid concerns, and those concerns should not be ignored.
However, we have a chance to learn from history rather than merely repeating it. This time around, we have an opportunity to do better. But to do so will take a concerted effort by technologists and technology vendors, and of course society as a whole. Technology vendors need to work with their customers to leverage the power of AI to its full extent, not merely to rip and replace human workers with robots or software. History tells us that industrial revolutions ultimately create more jobs, but it also tells us that the transition period is long and highly turbulent. So when we see resistance in the workplace to AI, we should acknowledge that the resistance is well grounded. Furthermore, we should resist the platitude that it will be ok, that those impacted will be moved to better and more fulfilling jobs. As they probably won’t.