Technology development has always been so
The arguments for and against Artificial Intelligence often reflect the innate biases of those making the point. In many ways, Intelligent Automation is simply continuing the automation of business processes that has been happening since the Industrial Revolution.
Over 100 years ago, people feared that the automobile revolution would be bad for workers, yet over time, the almost universal penetration of cars has changed people’s lives through greater mobility in a way that might not have been envisaged at the time. This is certainly the stance of the technologists who ultimately see the upside that increasing automation creates new kinds of jobs in the same way it ever has.
On the other hand, it’s where AI brings about capabilities that are frighteningly close to human thought processes that the fears are greatest, and the consequences of that are more of an unknown in terms of the impact on people, society, civilisation and government. At the extreme, how will we pay for the medical impact of our ageing demographic if there are fewer people in employment to pay the taxes that governments need to fund it? This is the stance often taken in the wider media, it gets more attention than process improvement in business!
Artificial Intelligence is not Rocket Science
In many ways, it’s the ‘AI’ tag that is unhelpful in this respect, as it gives the strong impression that it’s not just about jobs, reflecting our fears that the very purpose of the machines is to replace people by making them able to think. Our tendency to anthropomorphise and assume ‘humanesque’ qualities in machines serves only to exacerbate the fear.
Whilst it can be argued that computers can only ever respond to what they are programmed to do, that may be less clear cut when cognitive applications start to develop their own knowledge base and use that to drive the actions that arise from automated processes. Suddenly, fear of the Law of Unintended Consequences engenders that feeling that we wouldn’t have set about more automation if we had known what the consequences would be.
Well, it’s always possible to argue theoretically. In the practical, real world however, pilot projects associated with AI are finding a far more prosaic application through RPA, where the application is ‘merely’ continuing the process of automation that has been under way for the last couple of hundred years. Businesses are finding that there is a strong business case which, although it can feature reductions in headcount, it is far more likely to find a justification in better decision making, product and service innovation and pursuing new markets with greater competitiveness than before.
Where it does further optimise business operations, the evidence is that it frees up workers to be more creative or deployed to value-adding activity that might otherwise have gone unattended. Equally, the processes it replaces might often be those that have already been outsourced, so there is little or no impact on internal headcount.
Machines play a supporting role
Every so often, one should step back and reflect that the purpose of ‘the machine’ is to support our existence and make life better. This is, or should be, true of any technology – smartphones, social media, cars, consumer electronics, medical imaging, whatever. In that context, we start to drive the application of the technology in a way that makes it adopt a supportive role that is capable of making a difference in our lives.
What is likely with advancing technology is that in changing the way things work, jobs will change around the greater capability. Very few would argue that the development of cars into what are now mobile computers has not benefited the lives of their owners. For the mechanic who undertakes maintenance or repairs to your car, it has changed the job in that computer based diagnostics are now a vital part of the task, but it hasn’t done away with the need for auto mechanics.
The promise of Artificial Intelligence is significant
In some applications, Artificial Intelligence has a potential that simply cannot be ignored. Particularly in areas of Cognitive Insight, where the rigour and discipline of a machine-based approach, allied to the elements of auto-learning of which it is now capable, create applications that undoubtedly are an aid to human existence. When cognitive software is applied in medical science to detect patterns of cancer in lab samples that might either be very difficult or time-consuming for doctors to assess, the case is undeniable.
As with many instances of technology, we give it labels so that as humans, it can be put into boxes that make it easier for our understanding. If one ignores the ‘Artificial Intelligence’ label and thinks simply of capable technology applied to make functions easier, simpler and cheaper to undertake, it becomes easier to see the wood for the trees.
Some elements of Intelligent Automation undoubtedly will change business processes such that they are less demanding for humans and the role becomes ‘redundant’. At the same time, they will create an ability to handle more work, so businesses become more efficient, or they change jobs such that organisations can undertake functions that might otherwise have been ignored because the capacity to handle them did not exist.
Will Artificial Intelligence change jobs? Yes, undoubtedly. However, AI comes in several forms and is not always a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
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