Human and robot at office desks

AI won’t replace humans, just like computers didn’t

Image credit: Dreamstime

Experts are confident that artificial intelligence will operate hand in hand with humans in the workplace, not take their jobs.

With everything else that’s been going on in our busy lives, it’s been easy for humans to forget about the oncoming technological storm. As automation creeps into factories, workplaces and homes, artificial intelligence is making itself part of day-to-day life in numerous industries. Already deployed in devices used by three-quarters of global consumers, self-learning machines are observing the way we live, and copying the way we complete tasks.

In many ways, we’re already letting the machines take over…

Should we fear this change, or embrace it? To find out, I talked to many of today’s AI users – data scientists, business leaders, academics and students – about what they believe the most likely outcomes of an AI revolution will be. Their expectations, described in a report, ‘Searching for the AI Dividend: A Leap Into the Unknown?’ , paint an optimistic if cautious picture of a world in which humans and machines live side by side – a world that is only years away from becoming reality.

One topic was pervasive: job losses due to AI-driven automation. While it’s positive that most participants believe AI will create more jobs than it replaces, there was little agreement on the duration, severity or consequences of job losses resulting from AI in the short term. In particular, younger participants tend to be more pessimistic about their future prospects, anticipating a significant rise in AI-enabled inequality and a breakdown of social cohesion. Some fear the powerful technology being placed in the hands of a few could create a much greater divide between those with power, wealth and influence and those without.

Yet while there’s some trepidation from this current and future workforce, the message from the boardroom is loud and clear: workers have little to fear from AI. The reason for this is simple – even in an AI-driven future, humans will remain a valuable commodity worth investing in. They will continue to deliver value that machines do not.

As several professors and data scientists informed us, we’re still a long way from the ‘general intelligence’ so often portrayed in science fiction. Despite the hype, most AIs are designed to be very good at solving a specific problem under very particular parameters. Introduce a variable and the system breaks down or a new model needs to be created.

Time and time again, respondents reminded us that human creativity, insight and contextual awareness are key to making AI work. Technical executives in the senior management ‘c-suite’ told us how they ensure any autonomous processes are closely monitored and supervised by human employees. AI solutions with hidden internal workings aren’t worth the risk, due to a lack of transparency and explainability.

These sorts of validation roles have started to emerge only recently. With time, however, more transparent processes where employees review, understand and resolve the decisions made by AI systems will be a massive source of employment. Like any piece of software, the quality of AI insight depends on the quality of the data you feed into it, and it takes a human to know and judge what is good for it.

Like computers, AI is paving the way for new and better roles for humanity. Accurate AI that is capable of taking on time-consuming or difficult tasks ultimately boosts the workforce by increasing the value of interactions that are genuinely human – soft skills which 92 per cent of talent professionals believe matter as much or more than hard skills, according to LinkedIn. These could include fostering relationships with customers who have interacted with intelligent advertising, or ethically reviewing social media posts following AI moderation. For many organisations, it will simply mean having more time to make important decisions, thanks to machine-led insights doing the groundwork.

Throughout history, technology has enabled human advancement and created permanent changes to the way we live and work. It’s created jobs our grandparents never thought would exist, and will continue to do so throughout the generations.

But humans won’t be in conflict with AI. In fact, the future belongs to the cyborg, as opposed to the android – AI’s abilities will complement us, rather than replicate us. It’s perhaps best explained by one of our recent focus group participants: AI will replace us the same way computers did. That’s to say, they won’t.

Dr Iain Brown is head of data science at SAS UK & Ireland.

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