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Book interview: Paul Daugherty, ‘Human + Machine’

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As work becomes more digital, public understanding of the effect that artificial intelligence will have on our lives becomes more blurred. We should embrace the age of the machine, says author Paul Daugherty.

When asked what his new book ‘Human + Machine’ is about, Paul Daugherty says: “I’m an engineer, so I’m going to give you this in a mathematical formula. Which is ‘human plus machine equals superpowers’. The reason I wrote the book with James Wilson is that we believe that there is a lot of misunderstanding about the way in which artificial intelligence will affect the way we work and live. We decided to describe what the potential was for AI to transform work. Our findings as we put this together were that we believe AI, like any other technology, is fundamentally a tool that will allow us to do things more effectively.”

‘Human + Machine’ is based on research drawn from “working with hundreds and talking to thousands” of organisations about how AI can strengthen productivity, enable innovation and increase efficiency.

Daugherty, who is chief technology and innovation officer at Accenture, thinks that one of the biggest problems is the belief that AI will make human jobs redundant, while missing the key point that “it will make our working life better. There are misconceptions with any new technology. If you go back to the Industrial Age, you would have had the same sort of headlines then as you have now. This is because we assume the polar opposite of the benefit of the technology. You have machines that are good at repetition, while on the other hand you have people, who are better at communicating and creativity.” To assume that the machine just replaces the person, says Daugherty, is a binary position that creates the misconception.

“The reality is not the replacement of the person with the machine, but how the two come together in collaboration. In fact, I think that the phrase artificial intelligence is misleading, and one that I am starting to use a lot now is ‘collaborative intelligence’, where we take the increased intelligence that we can gain from AI tools and pair that with human intelligence. So the real question is how do you put the two together?”

In a nutshell, on one end of the spectrum silicon does the grunt work, while at the other, organic grey matter resolves ambiguity.

‘AI will make our working life better. There are misconceptions with any new technology.’

Paul Daugherty

There are organisations that are heavily digitalised and there are others that are more reliant on the human mind. That brings us to what is on the midpoint, which “is at the heart of the argument we are making in the book. The reason we called this the ‘missing middle’ is simply because looking at how to get collaboration from these two ideas has not yet been part of the public dialogue. What we’ve done is dive into this through our research to evaluate what this means.”

What’s important about the missing middle is that “this is where we are starting to see a lot of categories of new jobs”.

The problem, says Daugherty, is that it is easier to see the jobs that are being lost than it is to notice those we are gaining. “Automation and AI does put jobs at risk. But they also create many more. That’s what we are addressing here. We think that ‘Human + Machine’ is a guidebook to how to create these jobs and how to get your business to benefit from understanding the missing middle.”

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‘Human + Machine’

Artificial Intelligence is radically transforming business. So say the authors of ‘Human + Machine’, a discussion on how we might change how we look at the world of work in the era of AI.

The basic premise is that we need to stop thinking that robots are the enemy and start working collaboratively with them, exploiting their capacity to do repetitive and formulaic work, freeing our time to attend to the subjective decision-making that human brains are so much superior at doing. It is through this collaboration that organisations will achieve the next generation of performance breakthroughs whether in innovation, productivity or economic efficiency.

Based on the authors’ research into 1,500 organisations, ‘Human + Machine’ highlights gains made by those adopting this change in attitude, while detailing six new types of human-machine teamwork.

There are two broad categories of new jobs being created as a result of an increased uptake in AI. “The first is where people are needed to help machines work more effectively. This is an area that businesses need to move on to fast. The second is jobs where machines help people, and this is where we can see dramatic changes in productivity and effectiveness, skills and capabilities, as well as career development.”

While the second category is more understood, in the first an emerging type of work is in machine training. “This is where people are needed to train software and algorithms.” These days this isn’t just about data tagging, “which is a pretty low-level skill. It’s more about things like training the personality of chatbots and virtual agents that companies employ to communicate with their consumers.”

What’s interesting for Daugherty is that this “isn’t a technology skill performed by a coder. It might be a sociologist-type of skill, understanding the personality that the company wants to convey and then embodying it in the chatbot’s behaviour. If you are an entertainment or media company you might want a virtual agent that answers questions one way. But if you are an insurance company you’ll want your chatbot to behave in a different way. That’s a complicated skill that will require new jobs to be created in many organisations. At Accenture, we’re hiring for this type of job right now.”

The problem is, says Daugherty, that despite AI being the fastest moving 60-year-old technology we’ve ever seen, we are still a “very long way” from it being part of everyday life. And yet, the recent resurgence in AI development (triggered by advances in computer processing power, reduced cost of storage and increased availability of data) “has led to a much bigger interest in areas such as autonomous driving. There have been massive advances in these areas. But we’re really just at the start. There are advances in symbolic AI, which is more about modeling reasoning capability.

“We are also talking about artificial general intelligence, which is the ability to extrapolate knowledge from one domain and apply it to another. We really can’t do this to any extent today, but eventually we will have better solutions. So there are some promising emerging techniques that will produce transformative outcomes for us.

“This is an area that will move very fast, and there is no finishing line. Which means that organisations need to think about how to continuously innovate and reimagine their business in the light of these fundamental changes in technology.”

Imagining how work can be restructured can be seen as closely allied to the way in which society changes. It’s not just a question about employing processes to make this quicker, better and cheaper. As AI works in tandem with humans, Daugherty sees “huge positive potential for society. There are challenges we need to manage, but if you look at the societal impact, there is also the potential to dramatically improve the state of the planet. It will assist us in dealing with health and wellness in an aging population. There are many issues that AI offers exciting solutions to.”

‘Human + Machine’ by Paul R Daugherty and H James Wilson is from Harvard Business Review Press £22.00


The ‘missing middle’

Unfortunately, popular culture has long promoted the man-versus-machine view – think of movies such as ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and the ‘Terminator’ series. The idea of intelligent machines as a potential threat to mankind has a long history and has resulted in many executives adopting a somewhat similar perspective, thinking exclusively of machines as threatening to replace humans. But that view is not only woefully misguided; it’s also perniciously shortsighted.

The simple truth is that machines are not taking over the world, nor are they obviating the need for humans in the workplace. In the current era of business process improvement AI systems are not replacing us; they are amplifying our skills and collaborating with us to achieve performance gains that have previously not been possible.

The ‘Third Wave’ of business transformation has created a huge, dynamic and diverse space in which humans and machines collaborate to attain orders-of-magnitude increases in performance. This is the ‘missing middle’ – ‘missing’ because no one talks about it or analyses it, while only a small fraction of companies are working to fill this crucial gap.

In the missing middle humans work with smart machines to exploit what each party does best. Humans are needed to develop, train and manage various AI applications. In doing so they are enabling those systems to function as true collaborative partners. For their part, machines in the missing middle are helping people to punch above their weight, providing them with superhuman qualities, such as the ability to process and analyse copious amounts of data from myriad sources in real time. Machines are augmenting capabilities.

Edited extract from ‘Human + Machine’ by Paul R Daugherty and H James Wilson, with permission

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