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Ever since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the idea of machines doing the work of humans has been a subject of controversy. In 19th century England, the Luddites, fearing that their livelihoods would be taken away by machines that could deliver work at a speed and scale that they could never match, took to destroying these newfangled contraptions where they could.
But their resistance was short-lived. The march of machine power has been irresistible and today, human workers face competition from machines that can’t just outdo them physically but mentally as well. Artificial Intelligence – the simulation of human intelligence in machines – is already replacing countless functions previously carried out by humans.
Yet as the picture of the future AI equipped workplace becomes clearer, we are seeing that the real opportunity for business improvement is not in saving cost by replacing workers with machines, but in adapting processes and systems to embrace the fruitful cooperation between man and machine. As a study published in the Harvard Business Review put it, “firms achieve the most significant performance improvements when humans and machines work together”.
There are three ways in which businesses are achieving improvements through AI: cognitive, physical and interpersonal. The cognitive benefit of AI can be summed up as the ‘big brain’ effect – using machines to compute millions of calculations in seconds, to trawl search engines for information, to recognise faces, to identify patterns in vast databases… The speed and accuracy with which computers can carry out these tasks is something we’ve embraced for decades and the applications of this are becoming increasingly sophisticated.
The physical benefit of AI lies in the ability of machines to work constantly without rest or sleep, to lift heavy loads, scale heights, work in inhospitable environments and execute operations with extreme precision time after time. Production lines have been using robots for years, but today those robots are taught to respond to what’s around them and to adapt in a way that mimics human intelligence, thus making them much safer to work around.
The benefit that is least developed at this stage – and the one that causes the most alarm – is the use of AI for interpersonal functions. This requires machines to grasp and replicate the more subtle facets of human intelligence: empathy, irony, leadership, creativity etc. This has long been seen as the last bastion of human superiority over machines – if they can’t take a joke, they can’t take over the world – but today, these human faculties are being programmed into machines, such as chatbots, for example, with increasing success.
Here are five ways in which AI is helping to improve the way businesses operate.
Personalisation: Mercedes-Benz is using AI to customise every car that rolls out of its Stuttgart plant to the specific choices of every customer, as they place their order in real-time. This level of personalisation is a big driver for businesses seeking to differentiate and offer an enhanced customer experience.
Fraud: HSBC is using AI to process millions of customer transactions in seconds, helping to combat credit card fraud by identifying abnormal activities and recognising patterns that help to reduce the number of false positives.
Recruitment: Unilever is using AI in the first stages of the recruitment process, presenting candidates with tests designed to identify the attributes they require and managing the first selection stages accordingly. This not only enables companies to recruit from a much broader candidate base but also helps to identify talents and attributes such as empathy, leadership and teamwork.
Decision making: Many engineering businesses are using digital twins – a digital replica of a physical asset – to identify when a machine or component is not performing at optimum efficiency and accurately predict when parts need replacing or upgrading. This can save large capital outlays by identifying problems in time and also avoiding unnecessary replacements.
Training: HR departments are using virtual reality (VR) headsets to record their more experienced employees going about their tasks, then playing back the videos to trainees, also on VR headsets, to give them a ‘first-hand’ experience of the job they’re learning to do. This can help to overcome one of the problems identified from the increase in working from home, the loss of ‘role-modelling’ – where new employees learn by being around more experienced colleagues and picking up knowledge by observing and listening.
At first sight, these benefits may look like a threat to the human workforce. With machines that can think, act and even feel like we do, only faster and to a much greater scale, what need will there be to pay people to work?
But what we are seeing is that for machines to carry out any of these functions to the very best of their ability, they need humans to work with them. So while some jobs have disappeared, and will continue to disappear, others are being created in their place. And these new jobs play more to our cerebral strengths, which should make them more stimulating and fulfilling too.
There will be an increasing need for people with ‘fusion skills’ – the skills required to work at the interface between people and machines. These roles can be broken down into three broad categories: trainers, explainers and sustainers.
Trainers are the people who teach the AI systems how to perform. This is essentially a problem solving role. First they must identify the problem that needs solving, then design a model for solving it. They must train the AI system, much as a coach trains an athlete, through repetition and correction, until the machine learns to do it correctly every time or no further improvement can be achieved.
Explainers are people who interpret the output of AI systems for the decision makers. It is their job to recognise the insights gleaned from an AI process and present them in a way that less tech-literate leaders can understand and use to inform their decisions.
Sustainers are the people we’ll be relying on to make sure the machines don’t make slaves of us all. They see that AI is used responsibly, in terms of both safety and ethics. As an example of how AI is creating jobs, one of the biggest pieces of compliance legislation of recent years, the EU’s GDPR, is estimated to require 75,000 new roles for sustainers checking that personal data is being used responsibly.
The dystopian vision of machines rebelling against their human creators and taking over the world is one we’ve been enjoying, bizarrely, in books and at cinemas for many years. For businesses and workers, however, the real outlook should be much more positive.
Think of all the great ideas you haven’t pursued because of that little voice saying, “It’ll never work.” With AI, you could delegate the research to a machine and find out if an idea is feasible in seconds. This is would help to free our creativity and encourage more and more groundbreaking ideas.
In fact, provided the trainers, explainers and sustainers keep evolving in their knowledge and understanding, tasking machines with the repetitive manual tasks while training humans to carry out the more creative, cerebral jobs looks more likely to take humanity out of employment slavery, not put us into it.