Stephen Hawking has recently warned that artificial intelligence (AI) may soon do to office work what factory automation has already done to traditional manufacturing. According to a report by the consulting firm McKinsey, digital technologies can now perform a wide range of routine work activities better and more cheaply than humans.
This includes tacit judgments, sensing emotion and driving. Indeed, a 2013 study by the Oxford Martin School predicts that nearly half of all occupations in the United States could be displaced by technological automation over the next two decades.
Much as the first Industrial Revolution introduced new and unprecedented capabilities for shaping human society, so today AI and robotics are transforming industrial economies. Where citizens in advanced industrialised countries could once rely on finding employment within a highly secure and predictable labor market, many now face the prospect of joblessness due to accelerating technological innovation.
All of this suggests that the growing anxiety about technological disruption is becoming a very real problem.
As MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee observe, we are witnessing a "Great Decoupling" between economic growth and wages. And this decoupling is, in fact, driving a rising political anxiety about the future of advanced economies. AI technologies clearly represent a revolutionary transformation in the nature of work, but their overall impact on labor remains to be determined.
Forrester Research predicts that investments in AI will expand by over 300% this year, compared with 2016. This includes investments in machine learning, decision management, speech recognition, natural language generation, biometrics, and so forth.
At the same time, AI and related technologies also mean new opportunities for human-computer integration. McKinsey, for example, suggests that many work-based tasks will be improved by AI and robotics, enabling human beings to engage in work that is much less routine.
Indeed, while the next wave of automating technologies will likely displace a wide range of tasks, it remains the case that technology is complementary to many kinds of creativity and innovation. Put differently, even as the capacity of computers to replicate tasks that are well defined is high, their capacity for creative work remains low.
Looking forward, it would seem obvious that the use and application of computing and digital media will become the basis for leading professions in the 21st century. In this sense we stand at an inflection point in history. Together AI, robotics, and digital manufacturing are poised to transform the economic landscape. And this is driving change across industries.
In fact, all of these changes are converging toward what some are now describing as a “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Navigating this terrain requires adaptation and re-orientation.
It requires the capacity to explore new needs, and the ability to turn a discovered need into new value. It is obvious, for example, that accelerated rates of technological and social change will require more workers to focus on problem finding and problem framing, rather than simply problem solving.
While computers excel at many logical functions, they are simply not as efficient or effective as human beings at tasks requiring flexibility and judgment— at least not yet. Even as automating technologies begin to eliminate many forms of labor, they will not eliminate all occupations or all tasks.
This interpretation of labor trends is supported by research in Europe as well. According to a recent report from the British think tank Nesta, creative work remains the only strategic response to automation. Their key finding is that creative occupations are much more resistant to computerisation.
This actually makes a lot of sense. Workers who can leverage technology to augment creative work and learning will have a competitive advantage in the 21st century. In this way, the digitisation of labor is likely to further increase the demand for creative skills.
Rather than simply eliminating labor as a whole, AI will augment many kinds of creative work, and this leaves room for significant long-term innovation.
Fifty years ago, a company’s tenure on the S&P 500 lasted 60 years. Today that time span is less than 15 years. At this rate, by 2027, 75 percent of companies on the index will be companies that have yet to be created. As we move from the Information Era into the Augmented Era, demand is growing for a profound shift of focus at all levels of work and learning.
And as this creative destruction expands across industries, workers will need to be better trained to leverage technology in order to augment their creative labor. AI is not going away but it may well provide us with the tools to reshape work for the better.