The machines are coming!
You’ve heard this prophecy before, where a robot revolution is both impending and inevitable.
Of course, the grandiose theatrics of such an uprising is best left to the fantasies of Hollywood filmmakers of the Matrix and I, Robot.
But if I were to play the harbinger (or ‘The Oracle’, keeping with the Matrix trend), I would say the revolution is already here.
Machines that we have programmed are already beating humans at games that we have invented. They are occupying the ‘driving seat’ (pun intended) of our cars and know the fastest route better than you do in your hometown (a town perhaps where thirty years ago, a PC might have been unheard of). And would you believe that their prognosis of your illness may be more accurate than that of your neighborhood doctor, who perhaps has examined your tonsils before you could even form a sentence.
Yes, the revolution is already here, and the signs are omnipresent. Bill Gates already spoke about how machines should be taxed if they were to take your job. But you aren’t necessarily worried. For the intellectual element in you assuages your worry saying those robot jobs will be menial ones. You as a smart qualified individual, part of white-collar workforce will be immune to such brazen disruptions.
Think again! According to Harvard Business Review, machines may soon even replace doctors, lawyers and other professionals that form the elite of the workforce. The disruption to the workforce will be pervasive. Across economies, there have been measures of what has been perceived as economic protectionism and reversing globalization trends.
Singapore’s recent budget pragmatically highlighted the need to reskill and equip the workforce with relevant skillsets to ensure that even as industries continue to get disrupted, the workforce shouldn’t be disrupted. I think governments and industry across various nations need to put out similar Digital Reskilling Programs for their workforce as digitization becomes more pervasive.
So now that we have established that change is imminent, how do we best turn these ‘winds of change’ into a favorable zephyr as opposed to the threat of a hurricane?
A Luddite outlook towards technology is both antiquated and not feasible.
The best way to deal with change is to fully understand it. The fundamental issue at hand is to try and look at this ‘machine revolution’ as a revolution but not a revolt. What do I mean by that? Just as the industrial revolution did, the machine revolution will continue to be a game changer for various industries, the workforce and the economy.
Elon Musk, a billionaire synonymous for driving the conversation about Artificial Intelligence (AI) recently said we need to work alongside machines or find ourselves redundant. It is up to how we as companies, individuals, governments, tech aficionados can leverage upon this revolution to create a symbiotic relationship. We have to, however, look at AI holistically. While we address the inevitability of jobs being displaced, we must also discuss how jobs can, or rather will be enhanced.
Just as the word disruption now has positive connotation associated with it; as will the machine revolution.
So how will AI enhance the role of business leaders?
For one, AI and machine learning tools will be able to free managers of the some of the more administrative workaday tasks. According to this survey conducted by the Harvard Business Review, more than half of a manager’s time is consumed by more routine work.
Allowing for automation will not only assist a manager to gain more time (a currency that we can’t get enough of), but will allow him or her to judiciously dedicate that time to making critical decisions and exercising prudent judgement.
The important thing to be cognizant of, is that we mustn’t view this through a theatric 3D lens of a man vs machine battle. In fact, machines can be the ‘Robin’ (sidekick) allowing you to play Batman and thrive as the superhero in the workplace.
Using key algorithms and assessing critical data, fund managers, equity analysts and forex traders can make faster and more accurate investment decisions. Key machine learning tools are being implemented to compare millions of transactions and help regulatory authorities identify possible fraudulent transactions that may skip the human eye. Our digital footprints online help e-commerce websites serve us better. It helps Netflix curate your movie list while Spotify already knows what sets you in the mood for that early morning run.
I believe even as some industries will be disrupted, others will evolve and some will even strengthen. Even as e-commerce gave brick and mortar stores a run for their money, it gave the logistics sector, a key lifeline. For as e-commerce grew X times, logistic providers saw 2X growth; as front facing websites can’t survive without an efficient supply chain network.
Technology will continue to create new jobs and help new sectors sprout up. A decade ago, social media consultants, digital marketers, search engine optimizers were virtually unheard of. Drones will need drone engineers that help deliver medical supplies to some of the more destitute regions on the planet. There will be a need for special content creators for virtual reality and augmented reality hardware. And venture capitalists globally will be looking at writing checks to AI based startups.
But there is another elephant in the room that we need to address.
If AI tools will be the ones driving our cars, flying our planes, and recommending our medical treatments, then we are placing our trust in the hands of machines and those who control these machines. It goes without saying that one of Hollywood’s most celebrated dialogues is apropos here “With great power, comes great responsibility”.
While machines by themselves won’t have their own agenda, we have to ensure that there is common consensus among those who design such technology. Along with job disruption, it’s equally important to highlight AI safety and usage. If machines have access to possess some of our most sensitive data, then along with sophisticated technology, we need to build smart guardrails to guide development.
I believe the creators have the morale obligation to build AI by design that respect human right and ethics.
Creating a strong set of public-private partnerships between governments and industries (technology, financial, defense to name three) to define the guidelines and principles for AI development is a productive path forward.
Furthermore, technology is best when it is democratized and accessible rather than just in the hands of a few leading players. We may not realize it, but the phone you’re likely using to read this article has more computing power than the computer used by NASA to send the first man to the moon. But you don’t necessarily view your phone through such a scientifically grandiose lens since these devices are widely ubiquitous and the phones we use will not be able to launch rockets from an app.
Hence, for AI to ultimately prove cheaper and safer, it has to be more accessible with time.
While AI will continue to impact careers; we need to design AI to be our front seat companion in a technological smart race. And yes, while technology will literally be driving that car, we should be the ones setting the direction on a positive path.
Recently, a leading diplomat stated that diplomacy was in no danger of being replaced by robots. Perhaps because he felt machines were not sentient beings and diplomacy required tact and empathy.
And it maybe so, but at the rapid speed of innovation, don’t be surprised if we were to come up with algorithms where two machines sitting across a table could converse in the same machine language, calculate the best outcome of a win-win scenario and establish mutual understanding.
Robot Diplomats! Perhaps technology could do something that humans have longed for- world peace!