For many of us, our morning coffee is often accompanied by a seemingly endless stream of headlines about how our pending robot overlords will be the downfall of our economy. In aggregate they make the case that 'people having jobs' is soon to be part of history, rather than our daily lives. Issues related to AI and bots are also swirling through the zeitgeist in films such as Her, TV programmes like Black Mirror and Westworld, and books like The Circle.
To justify our fears, we often turn to real-world evidence such as factories with only a handful of workers or Netflix automating away Blockbuster. This only helps ratchet up the anxiety, and now 'robots stealing our jobs' is a fear felt across workers in many industries. Insurance underwriters, lawyers, delivery drivers, doctors, bankers, and factory workers all over the world are all wondering about what they will do when machines do more and more of nearly everything. If machines can do more, how are we to make a living?
Part of the debate is already over. We cannot get away from the fact that machines are getting more productive every day. Over the next few years, AI will continue to change our lives and our work. It is just a fact that new machines will replace some occupations and make some current skills irrelevant.
That is the dark side of the story. However, when you look at how businesses are currently using AI as the next generation of productivity improvement tools, the story becomes demystified and much less scary. The reality is that for those who learn to build and wield our new AI tools and business models properly, the Fourth Industrial Revolution can usher in an era of business growth, better employee engagement and job satisfaction, and lower costs.
Technology has changed the way we work throughout history and AI will certainly automate away some jobs. But, the more common scenario is that AI will take over the more boring, routine, lower value tasks that many of us face, often grudgingly, in our daily work - so, think of machines as our new helpful colleagues.
After looking at real world examples of AI impacting business, helping improve productivity - often without displacing massive amounts of workers - we are not facing a jobless robot dystopia where bots replace teachers, doctors, police officers, consultants, and composers. Instead, new technologies will take over many of the more mundane tasks most of us would happily offload. This is the critical point about the future of human-machine collaboration explored in our new book, What to Do When Machines Do Everything.
In fact, this is already happening, but you probably have not noticed it. We all use AI GPS systems to get around, and many of us gladly welcome the shopping support that Amazon's algorithms provide us. Tablets, smartphones, sensors, and the cloud already make our jobs - and personal lives - easier, but we are just getting started. With AI enhancement comes more efficiency, more productivity, and ultimately, more opportunity for people to do higher-value work with higher-value skills. This is the route to protecting jobs and creating new ones, not destroying them.
So, what are we to do to win in this new era? Employers need to identify the types of work, roles, processes, systems, and experiences that should be automated now, while also deciding what sort of work should stay firmly with people and enhanced through new technologies.
For a banker, this means better fiscal health for customers based on being able to interpret customer data and knowing instantly what is needed. For a doctor, it means better patient care based on accessing patient's health data from a wearable device (with permission) before someone even enters the waiting room. For a farmer, it means higher crop yields because every part of the field is sensor enabled.
The debate is now largely between the utopians - who see technology as the solution to every problem - and dystopias - who see nothing but a technology fueled nightmare for humans. Both are wrong. Smart leaders are already applying AI systems as productivity improvement tools, and that is the model for our future of work. This is AI for pragmatists, and adopting this mindset is the best first step we can all take to unlock new value in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.