Emerging Technologies

Calculators didn’t replace mathematicians, and AI won't replace humans

Man hand using a financial calculator with writing make note and Financial data analyzing on desk at home

AI re-allocates low-level, repetitive tasks to machines, allowing workers to focus on higher-level functions. Image: Tevarak

Erez Yereslove
Senior Vice President, Globality
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Technological Transformation

Not many of us would see a calculator as a threat to our jobs. Yet just as the development of these now ubiquitous tools disquieted some mathematicians, rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are now sparking debate and no small measure of concern about the future of the global workforce.

Recent data points to significant division in public perception around advancing the development of AI, most notably and directly tied to levels of education, wages, technical expertise and even gender. With policy-makers continually challenged to keep pace with technological change, it can seem like no one is minding the store. Some workers fear an unfamiliar and fast-approaching future will leave them out of a job. But I’m not worried, I’m excited.

Similar concerns have been raised since the beginning of the first industrial revolution 250 years ago. These only grew in frequency and intensity as technology accelerated in the 20th century. But in countless instances, it’s been repeatedly proven that technology becomes an enabler of efficiency and effectiveness, amplifying human achievement rather than detracting from it.

Multiply what’s possible

These days, would anyone willingly do tiring maths calculations longhand? Similarly, one of the greatest benefits of AI is the allocation of low-level, repetitive tasks to machines rather than people, driving immediate efficiency and allowing workers to focus on higher-level functions.

On a recent trip to the Californian wine country, I learned that grape pickers had been hugely stretched to keep pace with demand. Seeking a solution, vineyard owners brought in technology to perform automated optimal inspection and sorting of grapes. Instead of replacing the pickers, the technology reduced the night shifts they had to work to meet demand and freed them to do more complex work, including in the region’s booming tourism industry. In fact, automation is already estimated to triple throughput in the wine industry. In the same time, the number of farm workers in that area has steadily increased over the past decade.

At the other end of the employment spectrum, there are different but parallel concerns about AI within the highly skilled and highly educated but undersized workforce of cybersecurity professionals. Many cyber analysts spend a great deal of time on seemingly tedious tasks. Instead of scrutinizing for atypical compromise indicators, what is most needed are the advanced forensic skills required to analyze and respond to attacks. Rather than replacing these coveted workers, automating data correlation and other painstaking tasks will enable them to focus on more consequential efforts, such as remediating current attacks and preventing future ones. This is critical in a time when threats are increasing in both sophistication and frequency.

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Greater than the sum of its parts

For most of us, the more we use technology, the better we get at learning shortcuts. AI is the same. Machine learning (ML), an increasingly impressive branch of AI, enables machines to process data and learn on their own, compounding knowledge as each additional piece of data is acquired. While this may conjure discomforting images of Arthur C. Clarke’s Hal and the overture to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the reality is increased results and benefits for established disciplines.

Take for example the advertising industry, which continues to grow. Global ad spend rose by $23 billion or 4.3% in 2018. The use of AI and ML to help vet and compile “matchmaking” data in advertising and marketing is particularly useful to expand that growth further. At Globality, creating and utilizing AI helps us drive innovation, not only in our marketing department but throughout our entire company. By learning from continuous input, AI-based matching systems will become increasingly precise and sophisticated, delivering enormous benefits for international companies looking to hire marketing agencies based on merit in different areas.

Stop subtracting people and start adding exponential power

While I’m sure they would be efficient, I can’t imagine having to work with a department comprised of calculators. Humans are still the key to success. AI affects change and empowers individuals in a way that is only possible with technology. Globality’s Smart Sourcing Platform multiplies the capabilities of sourcing in immediate timeframes, matching companies in need with the best quality service provider at the right price for every project. That creates broader opportunity while also enabling each individual to reap the payoff of the compounded efforts our platform delivers.

Don’t divide effort and success

Accumulating collective knowledge advances team learning. In a hyper-competitive world, collaboration is more critical to effective performance than ever before. AI accelerates effective communication and teamwork in an immediate way. In a buyer-seller marketplace, AI-based systems learn through continual feedback, becoming smarter and more able to anticipate customer preferences over time. Through that progression, they can identify and match intangibles that previously required considerable direct interaction, such as communication preferences, personality, company culture, work style and other human-centric characteristics of a successful business relationship. These insights greatly increase the likelihood of beneficial results for both parties, right from the start.

What it all equals

The evolution from paper and pencil to calculators and then to spreadsheets did not replace mathematicians - it only made them more valuable. That value will increase as the progress of sophisticated analytics engines drives the need for ever more advanced interpretation and application, which only humans can bring. We repeatedly see that with the evolution of technology, market demand grows exponentially and often develops in ways that weren’t anticipated. The multiplier is not only about efficiency and effectiveness, it’s about enabling innovation.

Until fairly recently, certain job titles actually included the terms ‘calculator’ and ‘computer’. Advancements have enabled both an exponential increase in speed and a democratizion of these capabilities, which has resulted in the workforce becoming massively more effective. That even calculators have changed so drastically in the past 10 years showcases how our rate of advancement accelerates. Indeed, I haven’t picked up a calculator in more than a decade - I calculate now on my smartphone or on a spreadsheet, or I ask my smart speaker. Ten years from now, AI may well have taken the workforce, and the workplace, to places we can only dream about today.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Emerging TechnologiesJobs and the Future of Work
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