AI and automation are constantly changing our world, including the way we work. Take, for example, NASA's 1962 spaceflight. Back then, Katherine Johnson — the central figure in the book and movie "Hidden Figures" — famously checked the math of NASA's computer manually to put a spaceflight into orbit for the first time. Within just a few short years, though, that reliance on human intelligence has shifted to calculators and computers.
Today, the progression of automation seems almost scary due to the rapidly increasing sophistication of AI. The Forbes AI index shows that the volume of annual venture capital investment in AI is six times greater now than in the year 2000.1 These giant steps in AI capabilities may appear to uproot our assumptions about how work gets done but are really just a continuum of development. Understanding and harnessing this is critical to both the global economy and, on a deeply personal level, how we all make a living.
While robots can easily replace lower-level, routine jobs — such as the work done in factories, farms and fast food restaurants — new indicators emerge almost daily to illustrate how even white-collar occupations in finance, insurance, law and accounting are being automated, as well. If more than just physical and rote work can be replicated, and if human creativity, relationality and intelligence can also be simulated by AI at a more cost-efficient scale, then how will the average human worker possibly compete for work?
Leaders in companies of all sizes ought to be asking big questions about retaining the human elements of work, including emotional intelligence, people skills, judgment and natural genius. We need to examine how we retain those important human facets while taking advantage of the most effective tools at our disposal.
In preparation for the upcoming people disruption — probably reaching its peak during the next 15 years — organizations must understand the attributes needed to make work successful. Leaders need to start anticipating different future-of-work scenarios, including areas where human productivity, creativity and intelligence are matched or exceeded by artificial counterparts.
Automation is inevitable, but there are many possible outcomes. Rather than trying to guess how it will all shake out, today's leaders can prepare their organizations and their employees for an uncertain future. That requires thinking creatively about what skills and capabilities must be retained and which ones can be automated. We see an increasing degree of willingness to take the best of both worlds. Consider these four potential future scenarios to get your imaginative juices flowing, and start thinking about the future in new ways.
One view on the threat of AI is that it could not only cause a wealth and work gap, but it could also create a genius gap if the conditions to foster genius no longer exist.
If robots take over most human jobs, we could face a future condition of human potential left unfulfilled. An increased reliance on technology could cause greater numbers of people to feel unwilling to learn or do much, so that natural intelligence would be unable to bloom and thrive. With no jobs to prepare for, children may no longer be educated in the same ways. The AI revolution could transform genius from a natural resource into one that can only be created by those who have access to the most sophisticated AI, leaving others behind.
When it comes to high-value knowledge work involving complex systems and facts, AI will likely develop at such a rate that people can't harness or understand it. This puts them at risk of replacement rather than co-existence. This situation is unlike automating manual or physical labor, which is prone to human error and exhaustion. The efficiencies of automating white-collar work are more subtle — cutting down on mistakes and work hours, removing emotional bias from decisions, and increasing scale and complexity.
Knowledge workers must become comfortable working alongside AI and robots. One future vision might include co-bots: robots teamed with human operators and co-workers. Co-bots are a new element of the work relationship that needs to be forged as teams become a diverse mix of human and artificial intelligence.
AI presents a new way to think about diversity and teams. Diverse teams make better decisions and drive better business results. That includes "cognitive diversity," or differences in problem-solving or information-processing styles.
An obvious next step is factoring AI-powered robots into the cognitive diversity of your team. Their problem-solving style is known, determined by the code they run on and the data sets they are trained on. They are the perfect counterweight to unstructured, variable human team members. Optimizing a team will soon mean designing a powerful combination of creative human minds with structured AI minds, applied to different elements of the task at hand.
The role of HR must evolve with increased automation in the workplace. Human and AI workers will exist together in a labor pool, with HR expected to deploy the best workers for any given task. This will require understanding the power and aptitudes of robots, and — perhaps more importantly — their limitations. Deploying human capabilities against the right tasks will become a key skill for HR.
As HR becomes increasingly focused on data management and analytics capabilities, HR leaders need to consider the ethics of personal data obtained from employees, potential employees, contractors and customers. The digital and smart work tools that will dominate the future of business tend to collect mountains of information about their users. As a result, HR has a deeper responsibility as a guardian of personal data and human privacy.
By considering these potential future scenarios, leaders can start strategizing about how to prepare their organizations and their employees for an increased reliance on AI and automation.
Columbus, Louis. "10 Charts That Will Change Your Perspective on Artificial Intelligence's Growth." Forbes. Jan. 12, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/louiscolumbus/2018/01/12/10-charts-that-will-change-your-perspective-on-artificial-intelligences-growth/#2314726a4758.