Automation and the Future of Work
The topic of artificial intelligence (AI) is red hot and dominates the headlines for much of the daily tech news cycle. There’s been some intriguing (and attention grabbing) themes running between these headlines including the potential for AI to end humanity (which included a public feud between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg). Another key theme has revolved around the potential for AI and automation technologies to eliminate jobs with frightening efficiency. But perhaps the general public is feeling less paranoid about these threats as a recent PwC report found two in three people believe technology will improve their job prospects, not diminish them. What we can be sure of is that AI has arrived and is here to stay. What we cannot predict is the speed and extent of its impact in the future.
As referenced many times before, there are parallels to draw between the onset of AI and the Industrial Revolution. The invention of machines in the late 18th century that could perform some of the most laborious tasks previously done by people or domesticated animals led to a displacement of physical labor and a transformation of the labor market. It was a process that played out over several generations and laid the groundwork for much of modern society. Now, with AI, we are seeing the potential for a similar impact. Instead of displacing human physical labor, we are experiencing a displacement of mental labor. We’ve witnessed the invention of devices and software that can handle certain types of mental labor with great efficiency. For these certain tasks, AI can bring greater speed, accuracy, reliability and predictability.
This displacement of mental labor is not new. For example, in the movie Hidden Figures we saw human calculators being replaced by IBM mainframes over fifty years ago. This has been a trend building for many years, but recent acceleration is undeniable. I am a firm believer that this trend will drive great gains in labor productivity and benefit society broadly, just as was seen during the Industrial Revolution. This is particularly true because many of the tasks at which AI excels are the most tedious and tiring mental tasks. Does anyone yearn to go back to the days of human calculators? Just as the Industrial Revolution eliminated many of the most difficult and dangerous jobs, AI will eliminate many of the least appealing jobs for office workers.
It’s been interesting to see where new AI applications are turning up and gaining traction – from the emergence of driverless cars, to journalism with the Washington Posts’ AI-powered bot named Heliograf. Heliograf made its debut last year and has been deemed the “most sophisticated use of artificial intelligence in journalism to date.” AI is also appearing in industries like accounting, where we see AI-based bookkeeping, and marketing, with deepened personalization and automated customer interactions. For example, our portfolio company RapidMiner, a leader in advanced analytics (and AI!), uses an AI bot on its homepage to help direct customer inquiries.
So, what does this mean for us, the happily employed masses? In most cases, AI won’t eliminate the need for human employees. It will certainly shift our roles, eliminating much of the tedious, repetitive work and making organizations’ systems more efficient and profitable. And despite the current panic over potential job loss, I think human ingenuity will lead us to “next generation” jobs pretty effectively. Office buildings were once filled with accountants using calculators to balance books – working through reams of endless paperwork to generate answers and insights. Computers changed that game and didn’t lead to a loss of jobs, but in fact created far more new and better ones. They created efficiencies that led to new job possibilities and growth. The bottom line is this: as AI and automation technologies continue to evolve, people will need to shift their skill sets accordingly, but the possibilities are inspiring.
Keep an eye out for more from us on automation, we’ve just barely scratched the surface.