Race against the machine

 |   Rashi Mehrotra

Artificial intelligence is more pervasive in the workplace now than ever. Whether AI’s complete takeover in workplace happens earlier or later, AI is already here and is looking to stay. The Star did a feature on AI’s increasing presence in workplace and quoted Michal Golebiewski, Microsoft Malaysia’s Chief Marketing and Operations Officer in the story. Read the print version here

Artificial intelligence in the workplace is not a thing of tomorrow. It is of today.

“THE factory of the future will only have two employees – a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog; the dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”

That was American scholar and business leadership expert Warren Bennis’ reply when asked what artificial intelligence (AI) would do to the world of work.

Bennis’ assessment, published in The Millionaire’s Book Of Quotations, seems a little dystopian, but it isn’t far from the truth if the recent analysis by Price Waterhouse Cooper (PWC) is an indication of the future.

PWC claims that up to 38% of jobs in the United States, 35% in Germany, 30% in Britain and 21% in Japan could be automated by 2030, and that is a scary thought.

The report said that manual roles highly susceptible to replacement by AI are transportation and storage (56%), manufacturing (46%) and wholesale and retail (44%) sectors.

Earlier this year, private sector think tank McKinsey Global Institute released a more reassuring report – for those hoping to keep their jobs, at least – that suggests half of today’s work activities can only be automated by 2055, and that only 5% of jobs can be ­completely automated, if ever.

The threshold, however, could be reached 20 years earlier or later depending on ­economic trends, labour market dynamics, regulations and social acceptance.

Now, whether the AI’s complete takeover in workplaces happens earlier or later, let’s get one thing straight – AI is already here and is looking to stay.

Intelligent assistants

AI is being used as intelligent assistants in the workplace, with more companies using the technology to transform parts of their operations.

One such department that benefits from AI is Human Resources, namely in the ­operation, productivity and talent development sections.

“AI in the workforce is much different than that textbook image or that of The Jetsons. From voluminous files to virtual files – employees navigate the virtual hallways seamlessly between e-mail, texting, Skype and live chats. The advent of technology has taken the world by storm and the traditional workplace evolved to keep up with both the technology and workforce that came through digital transformation,” says Microsoft Malaysia chief marketing & ­operations officer Michal Golebiewski.

These intelligent assistants can be tailored to help recruit employees, get the most out of workers and even personalise learning. For example, chatbots as developed by Microsoft, Google and Amazon, can be useful for responding to general queries from the staff while freeing up time from HR personnel to focus on critical and more strategic tasks.

SAP’s Resume Matcher software, for instance, can replace HR’s job of sifting through resumes to find the right candidate. The software reads Wikipedia entries to learn job descriptions, required skills and more and matches it with thousands of anonymised resumes before shortlisting ­successful applicants.

“Today, AI is more pervasive in the ­workplace than ever and will continue to add positive value to an individual’s productivity and an organisation’s competitiveness. It can help reinvent productivity daily for a workforce,” says Golebiewski.

Merging with machines

Last year, Momentum Machines in the United States created a multi-tasker bot that is able to make a gourmet burger in just 10 seconds. Replacing humans with this robot would undoubtedly give the word “fast” in fast food a new meaning.

There is also a genius manufacturing device from Universal Robots that paints, glues and solders, and is able to build new parts for itself when the old ones wear out, and just to show that nobody likes to work with boring people, Google recently won a patent to start creating working robots with personalities.

AI is everywhere, and billionaire Tesla and SpaceX boss Elon Musk is none too happy about it. Fearing that AI would render humans useless, Musk suggests that humans merge with machines to become some sort of cyborg.

While the world prefers to believe that the futuristic businessman was only joking, a CNBC article states that Musk was serious about his conviction at the World Government Summit in Dubai, UAE.

“Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence,” Musk reportedly told the audience.

Isn’t it funny that Musk is worried about AI when his company Tesla is developing autonomous cars? During his speech, Musk said that the self-driving cars will displace jobs in a span of about 20 years, after which about 15% of the global workforce will be unemployed.

“But there are many people whose jobs are to drive. In fact, I think driving in ­various forms might be the single largest employer of people. So we need to figure out new roles for those people, but it will be very disruptive and very quick,” he was quoted as saying.

Sharing Musk’s belief – not about the cyborgs but the vision of a jobless future – is author and futurist Martin Ford. In an ­interview with the New York Times, Ford states: “I see the advances happening in ­technology and it’s becoming evident that computers, machines, robots and algorithms are going to be able to do most of the ­routine, repetitive types of jobs. That’s the essence of what machine learning is all about. What types of jobs are on some level fundamentally predictable?

“A lot of different skill levels fall into that category. It’s not just about lower-skilled jobs either. People with college degrees, even ­professional degrees, people like lawyers, are doing things that ultimately are predictable. A lot of those jobs are going to be susceptible over time.”

Don’t despair

AI is cool, but more awesome than that is the authentic intelligence of human beings, says Silicon Valley expert Raymond D. Zinn in an article in Forbes.

“The first order of business is always to ask a question, something AI presently ­cannot do well. We humans are still pretty good at inquiry,” he writes.

Although there is currently a lot of debate over whether unemployment rates will rise due to AI, Zinn says that automation may temporarily displace workers, but it will ­happen in singular industries. The displaced employees, he writes, will adapt.

“What is clear, then, is that economics, like life, finds a way. A few jobs may be eliminated, but the displaced workers either find alternative employment or the next generation will simply avoid the automated industries. Since some industries cannot (yet) be automated, job migration between fields remains possible.”

Zinn believes that AI will cause jobs to change, for the economy to expand and the need for humans to work to be reduced.

“That is the promise of all technology. We are, after all, humans. And as humans, our societal institutions – religion, politics, ­policing, school – still require direct contact and benefit from more of it,” he writes.

“Fear not, then, AI and automation, for in the long run, it improves mankind by ­liberating us to be more human.”

Read the print version here