Jobs and the Future of Work

The machines are taking over! Or are they?

Supriya Jain
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Emerging Technologies

One of the most exciting and talked about technologies today is artificial intelligence (AI). While we tend to think of AI as inherently futuristic, people have in fact been worrying about the idea of a machine or material taking on human life since antiquity.

From Talos, Greek mythology’s living statue made of bronze, to the robots of Isaac Asimov, one of the great 20th century science fiction writers, our interest in AI has echoed through the ages.

It has only intensified as reality catches up with the world of fiction. In 1997, a computer named Deep Blue defeated the world chess champion Garry Kasparov. At the turn of the new millennium, Steven Spielberg captured the public imagination with AI, a film about a robotic boy who longs to be real. A decade on, in 2011, IBM’s computer Watson vanquished human competitors on the quiz show Jeopardy!, paving the way for more real world applications of AI.

The machines are taking over! Or are they?

For most people, the concept of intelligent machines is disconcerting to say the least. This is not surprising, given that we often associate the advent of machine intelligence with something that will take away our jobs, or take over the planet. And this is just the beginning. The world, it seems to some, is spinning out of control. As we get closer to “the singularity” – the futurist Ray Kurzweil’s prediction that the intelligence of one machine will outstrip all humanity – the relationship between people and computers is only going to get more complicated.

Three ways to prepare for the machine age

While some of the concerns are valid, particularly for the future of jobs, it is up to us to decide how we develop ourselves to be relevant in the new machine age. While it is impossible to determine exactly what the world will look like after “the singularity”, let’s look at some areas that require immediate attention and changes to the way we run things.

  1. Education – The role of education is to prepare us for our lives ahead. In today’s education system, we spend at least 18 or so years in school learning facts, figures and trivia. This information – 90% of which we forget in the first two years – is today available at our fingertips via our smartphones. With rapid advances in technology, we will soon be able to programme all school curriculums into a chip and implant it in our brains. Voila! All the facts of 18 years of education in less than 18 minutes. But then what does this mean for schools, and the entire education system? What is their role in preparing us for the future?
  2. Work – Intelligent machines will change how we work in ways we cannot even comprehend. It’s not only routine tasks that machines can do better, but also, increasingly, knowledge work that computers can carry out by analysing thousands of possibilities in fractions of seconds. For instance, IBM’s Watson has moved on from quizzes to crunching big data to tackle cancer, while it has shrunk from a supercomputer the size of a bedroom to technology that will soon be available as a smartphone app. Rather than simply processing numbers, it learns from the data it consumes. In an age of such progress, what is the future of work for humans? We’ve all been through training sessions that taught us how to collaborate better and embrace diversity. But those lessons always focused on all-human teams. What happens when workplace dynamics include humans AND machines?
  3. Ethics – This is a grey area where there are no clear insights yet. If machines gain superhuman intelligence, what is to stop them from manipulating us? What could malicious individuals and organizations do with such technology in their hands? What values will be under stress in the future? How do we conserve what is really important and how to we develop machine intelligence to correspond to this value system?

While leading minds across the globe are grappling with the above questions, the simple truth is that humanity needs to grow up. The answer lies not in stopping progress but in learning to maximise the benefits of it.

Fire, wheel, iron tools, steam engine, search engine…

Instead of crying foul over each technological development, let’s take a breather and see what technology has done for humanity. Technological progress has made lives better. The fire, the wheel, iron tools, the steam engine – all have contributed to human growth and development. Newer technologies such as social media and mobility have made the world more accessible, transparent and accountable.

But culture has had to evolve with the technology. And therefore, for our next leap of technological progress, we need to work on the cultural leap as well. Yet, while technology grows exponentially, culture grows logarithmically  and takes time to evolve. Therefore we must start the process of change now – if it’s not already too late.

Start with education

The first thing we need to fix is the education system. Schools must evolve from the industrial age learning system, to one more suitable to the machine age. They need to teach children 21st- century skills – how to communicate better, how to apply critical thinking, and how to embrace new points of view. In a world with AI, children and young people should spend much less time in education, but learning must continue through our entire lives. Schooling must be more about ethics, culture, community, quality of life and appreciation of “being human” than about trigonometry.

As intelligent machines become an integral part of professional teams, the skills we learn in school will be applied to the workplace. New business and management practices more suitable to these new dynamics will need to be adopted. Management challenges will be centred more on balancing human emotional intelligence with machine IQ, and work will be delegated according to these strengths.

The fork in the road

And central to all this change will be the value system. How can we make sure that distinctly human capabilities are harnessed in a meaningful way? Society will have to be more honest and transparent. We are already witnessing the rise of the sharing economy, which will become the cornerstone of a society where equal access is granted to all resources.

Developments in AI can lead us to a human utopia, but there is a fork in the road, and where we end up will be decided by the road we choose to follow. We can turn one way and make a serious attempt to grapple with the complex issues and opportunities that AI represents, or we can turn the other way, and ignore both its potential and its perils. Are you going to make the right choice?

Author: Supriya Jain leads the Global Thought Leadership Marketing Initiative at Wipro Ltd. She is also the founder of Miitra, a social organization for the elderly. You can connect with her on Twitter (@jainsupriya) and LinkedIn or follow her blog. Views here are personal and are not aligned with any organisation.  

Image: The humanoid robot AILA (artificial intelligence lightweight android) operates a switchboard during a demonstration by the German research centre for artificial intelligence at the CeBit computer fair in Hanover March, 5, 2013. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

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Related topics:
Jobs and the Future of WorkFourth Industrial RevolutionEducation and SkillsEmerging Technologies
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