The robots are coming. And they’re scary. That’s one of the conclusions of a survey commissioned by the , which assessed the public’s perception of the risks and benefits of machine learning.
But machine learning and robotics are just two components of AI, not the whole thing. And our perceptions of associated risk are magnified by a Hollywood sensibility. For example, the survey shows that we have a particular fear of predictive policing – the idea that government organisations will be able to make judgements about our propensity towards all sorts of anti-social behaviour () and even retaliate ().
Ordinary consumers don’t yet understand AI– their view is dystopian; particularly as the press focuses on the relentless story that . That’s understandable: one in six US workers drives for a living, and these jobs will undoubtedly be razed in a driverless future that is barely a decade away. We are indeed on the brink of the next industrial revolution, and it’s tempting to respond emotionally.
But in , futurist and advisor to Google, Ray Kurzweil, wrote “A kid in Africa with a smartphone has more intelligent access to knowledge than the President of the United States had 20 years ago. As AI continues to get smarter, its use will only grow. Virtually everyone’s mental capabilities will be enhanced by it within a decade. The typical dystopian futurist movie has one or two individuals or groups fighting for control of ‘the AI’. But this is not how AI is being integrated into the world today. AI is not in one or two hands, it’s in 1 billion or 2 billion hands”.
It’s a useful point. Forget mind uploads (, right?); the most prevalent driver of AI is in our hands: the smartphone. And it has already democratised access to computing power that would be unthinkable a decade ago. AI is indeed going to pull some jobs out of the market. However, whilst commentators are right to say that we will need more careers and educators, that’s not going to be the only option. New work paradigms are going to be open to more people than ever – because in a connected world, AI can change the workplace for the better, for everyone. Here are just some of the ways AI is already filtering into our work lives…
Finding work, finding talent
You can tell who’s looking for work. They’re the ones with a recently updated LinkedIn profile. You see, most of us only think about the job market when we’re actually job-hunting. With AI’s help, job-seekers can be notified when suitable opportunities appear; and companies will be better equipped to seek out talent or build and maintain richer relationships with talented individuals, long before and after they are actually employees. AI will also help to eliminate bias and .
Amazon has a vast cohort of data at its disposal, yet despite the promises of data-driven marketing, even the mighty behemoth isn’t capable of much more than “You bought one of these. Someone else bought one of those and then bought one of these. So you might like one too.” (Or maybe we just haven’t noticed…) Indeed, the fact that we are all aware (and sick) of retargeting, follow-me ads and other advertising techniques shows that deeply experiential marketing has not yet reached anything like its full potential. AI will and cross-device and cross-channel relevance. Where the first generation of internet services put unlimited information at our disposal, AI will make curating, selecting and using that information practical instead of overwhelming. And it will also extend into the real world, as engaged brands will follow us into shops to give us a seamless and more relevant marketing experience.
Looking after customers is ever more challenging, and people are not always the best tool for the job. Migration online has made provision of services simpler (most customers use human interaction only for exceptions, where the answer is not immediately obvious online), but it has also made customers more demanding. We want answers in seconds, not a pained conversation with a customer service agent fumbling through our account credentials. and can outperform human assistants in some contexts; and we can expect a ability to seamlessly blend AI and human interventions to become part of the service and support landscape.
There’s no industry currently untouched by technology, indeed most enterprise-grade businesses admit that they are in a perpetual state of “transformation” as technologies collide to deliver either new economies and opportunities, or the oblivion of being left behind. Technology giants (Google, Microsoft) are seeking to apply machines to an ever broader set of problems. Tech-first upstarts (Uber, Palantir) are disrupting the status quo in their chosen niches. And the great industrial names of the twentieth century (GE, Johnson & Johnson) are all fighting back with in-house to re-energise their own market sectors. All are powered by the cloud, limitless IT infrastructure and near-instantaneous deployment, thanks to new trends like . In the Software-as-a-Service world, it’s now possible to run a piece of software on a laptop in a coffee shop – and know that it will run in exactly the same way when scaled up to five million users in the cloud. With access to technology no longer a complexity, what companies do with it – and how – will become the source of competitive advantage and growth. AI will power global reach and customisation, generating relevance and meaningfulness in tomorrow’s online services.
The travel industry is under unique pressures. In particular, disconnects in the rail, air and accommodation markets mean that almost nobody pays exclusively on the basis of the services they use. Rather, we pay for necessity, convenience, or even just have our travel options dictated by fuel prices set and hedged years ago. These markets are also fragmented: a flight will be provided by up to 25 different companies providing everything from the plane to the catering. And yet, travelers are generally pretty miserable. So anything which makes the process of getting from A to B easier for passengers and more economical for providers is going to be well received. Airlines all run their own apps, so it’s no surprise that they are latching on to the potential offered by chatbots – particularly on the ubiquitous Facebook platform. is particularly adept at navigating the complexities of making individual bookings, and if you would like a truly independent view, Unbabel client, , is also putting Facebook Messenger to work.
When HR is strategic, it’s a triumph. Yet all too often it falls into a tactical, box-checking exercise. AI will elevate HR by using data to connect team dynamics to commercial outcomes. Instead of reactively hiring to fill holes, HR professionals will know what skills will be required to solve problems and drive strategies. They will know what sort of team size and composition will get the best results. And they will know how to motivate each individual to get the best overall performance.
Virtual reality has different effects in different contexts and industries; particularly as AI begins to impact what we can achieve in virtual environments. In medicine, for example, augmented reality and robotics are already being used to . In aviation, the first are now available. And in the games industry, virtual reality simply represents the natural evolution of a suspension of disbelief we’ve been enjoying for over five decades. To improve our skills, to optimise our human abilities in the field, or simply to enjoy some downtime, AI will power virtual experiences which are more immersive or more effective than reality itself.
And everything else
Then, there are applications of AI which are universal. has applications across the board, from customer engagement to provision of emergency services. Siri, Alexa and Cortana, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft’s virtual assistants, are omnipresent too. Google overlays location data from smartphones with information from , the crowdsourced traffic app it bought in 2013, for incredibly granular topographical insight. Oh, and it’s back to for the piece of AI you probably use every few minutes without knowing it: spam protection.
Certainly, whatever we thought was the pinnacle of technology today will be reinvented tomorrow, and only businesses which are prepared to ride the wave of change will survive. But the above examples hint at a few universal trends, all of which should make us truly excited.
First, whether through robotics or machine learning, technology is coming out from the screen. We will see and feel it integrated into our routines; indeed, when it’s working properly, we won’t see or feel it at all.
Similarly, technology will focus on and improve the human experience. Where connectedness has traditionally given us information, it will now give us experiences and choices. And as with every technological evolution so far, whilst there have always been losers in the rebalancing, there will also be many who are scooped out of financial poverty or poverty of access, and given new opportunities. The fact that the first AI lawyers are now coming online is an exceptional example of this trend in action; ’s removal of language barriers is similarly enabling.
And finally, we’ll be able to do more. That may mean squeezing more into the working day; it may also mean doing things which are currently beyond our conceivable skillset. Just as the smartphone has turned us all into photographers and videographers, with an AI wingman and a robotic sidekick, we will all be able to exceed our own expectations.
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