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Artificial intelligence and its limits in the workplace


Victoria Usher

Published On:

April 3, 2017

Published In:

Technology Insights

The fear that artificial intelligence will take over the world is hardly new – as any Terminator fan would tell you. But as innovation in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics escalates – with this sector predicted to add up to £654 billion to the UK economy by 2035 – there is a more immediate and tangible concern. This anxiety relates to the impact these emerging technologies could have on employment if intelligent machines take over traditionally human roles.

The World Economic Forum identifies unemployment or underemployment due to technological advances as the biggest global risk to businesses in 2017. In addition a report by McKinsey Global Institute suggests around half of today’s jobs could be automated by 2055 as robots and computers are able to perform routine tasks more efficiently than humans.

The loss of jobs to new technologies is not a new phenomenon, but the ability for machines to emulate human thinking, reasoning, and decision-making means occupations thought to be safe from automation are now at increased risk. The news Uber is partnering with Daimler to introduce self-driving cars will ring warning bells for taxi drivers. While reports artificial intelligence chatbot DoNotPay has helped 160,000 people successfully contest parking tickets in London and New York sounds like bad news for lawyers.

But are we being too hasty in predicting that the continued rise of artificial intelligence will cause mass unemployment? Here are three reasons the situation may not be as extreme as the media might have us believe:

New job categories will emerge

While a recent report by PwC estimates 30% of existing jobs in the UK are at risk from new technologies, it also indicates automation will boost productivity, creating wealth and additional jobs elsewhere in the economy. In its report, The Future of Jobs, the World Economic Forum suggests we are at the start of a ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ where disruptive changes are having a significant impact on the employment landscape both in terms of job displacement and job creation. Many occupations that are currently in high demand, such as Data Scientists, didn’t exist ten years ago, and it is estimated 65% of children beginning primary school this year will eventually work in job roles that do not yet exist.

Artificial intelligence should be used to augment human roles, rather than replacing them entirely. It can improve the productivity of workers and liberate them from routine duties, providing new opportunities for them to focus on tasks that require the nuances of a human mind. Artificial intelligence is already integrated effectively in many core business applications, especially marketing and media where it routinely powers predictive analytics, ad targeting, and product recommendations. ADmantX, for example, uses Natural Language Processing – a form of artificial intelligence – to deliver advanced contextual and sentiment targeting as well as intelligent brand safety, ensuring brands get the best return on their marketing budgets.

Artificial Intelligence has some limits

Dr Toby Walsh, a leading researcher of AI and guest professor at the Technical University of Berlin, outlined some of the limits of intelligent machines in this video. Using the example of Google’s AlphaGo program – which unexpectedly defeated professional player Lee Sodol at the highly complex Chinese game Go – Dr Walsh illustrates how intelligent machines are only able to perform one specific task, whereas humans are expected to perform a variety of tasks in most job roles. Unlike the C3PO-style fictional robots we’re used to – who seem to be able to turn their hand to any given task – AlphaGo wouldn’t even be able to switch to playing Poker. He also explained machines are still very slow to learn compared with humans. It took AlphaGo billions of games to learn how to defeat its human opponent whereas it only took Lee Sodol three games to learn how to beat the machine.

Dr Walsh also believes artificial intelligence will hit natural limits, due in part to the law of diminishing returns, where it won’t be efficient for machines to improve their performance any further. He likens it to the aviation industry where the boundaries of technological innovation were pushed with the invention of supersonic flight, but sustaining this mode of transport proved to be economically unviable. Ultimately the investment and resources required to produce intelligent machines that can perform complex human tasks may not be justified by the increased productivity or cost savings.

Use of technology is a matter of choice

Speaking at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty attempted to ease concerns about technology displacing human workers. When discussing Watson – an artificial intelligence platform that in some instances is able to detect cancer more effectively than medical experts – she explained this type of technology is only intended to supplement human work. She called for care in the implementation of intelligent machines, saying “History has taught us many things. When you [have] powerful technologies, you have a responsibility that they’re introduced in the right way.”

Human workers will only be replaced by machines if employers choose to take this path, and many businesses are already pledging to retain and retrain staff if they do adopt artificial intelligence. As well as a moral responsibility to the workforce, humans also have to decide where machines can be given autonomy to act in the real world and where they can’t. There are some simple decisions that can be made by computers, but other more complex ones should remain with humans, even if those choices are informed by computer analysis or algorithms.

It is easy to get carried away by the headline stats about robots taking over jobs, and it is likely employment as we know it is entering a time of significant change. But the displacement of human workers with technology will not necessarily be the catastrophic event portrayed. Machines will continue to operate alongside humans, requiring their input, and will open up new opportunities that haven’t yet been identified. What is clear is that businesses must understand the implication of using artificial intelligence and prepare for its arrival.

As the World Economic Forum report states, “It is our actions today that will determine whether we head towards massive displacement of workers or the emergence of new opportunities.” And as Dr Walsh warns, “Hollywood is actually pretty good at predicting where we will end up if we don’t make the right decisions.”

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