The Human Cost of Our Rapidly Changing World

Ross Thornley
August 19, 2019
August 19, 2019

“Companies have far more to gain by helping humans and AI to work together, rather than simply displacing human roles: ‘humans and AI actively enhance each other’s complementary strengths”

In general, when we talk about our rapidly changing world, we talk about humans and technology in isolation, as though the two are naturally separated, or worse as two opposing forces in a battle for supremacy. However, I believe technology is inert until we give it a purpose, and at it’s best, when augmented alongside humans, it can unlock opportunities and accomplish solutions never-before-possible. Technology has always had a symbiotic relationship with humankind, and informed the way we interact with the world around us.

Many fear displacement in our age, and perhaps with good reason. It’s estimated 1,000,000 jobs will vanish in the US by 2026, and 800 million worldwide by 2030, saying nothing of the potential billions that will need to be re-skilled into new roles. Let’s break this down a little. That’s approximately 102,500 in Wired Communication Carriers (outmoded by the abundance of mobile phones). 88,000 in newspaper, periodical, book, and directory publishers. 80,700 in the postal service. In fact, many have already been displaced. U.S. In 2015, Hewlet-Packard, a single company, laid off 33,000 people (10% of its total workforce). Auto manufacturing jobs in the U.S. have dropped from 1.3 million in 2000 to 942,000 in June 2017, a loss of 358,000 jobs (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

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These are not just statistics, but people and families who will now have to rapidly adapt and find a new way to live, a new future, a new career, which isn’t easy even for the naturally adaptive. Many will have to learn new skills, as their old skills become redundant with changing processes. Consider how ‘typing’ was once a skill that you could wear on your CV. Times change and we are forced to either learn new skills or re-learn skills with new application, or face being left behind. However, the significance of our current epoch is that this change is happening more and more rapidly, with less time for us to re-evaluate and change strategy to cope with the change.

This is typified by the fact it’s not just manual labour jobs that are being replaced. Algorithms and advanced AI can now fulfil complex customer-facing roles: from customer services and mortgage advice, to legal counsel, and even medical diagnoses. Often it can fulfil these tasks with greater accuracy and reliability, and less bias, than human operatives.

However, the picture is not as bleak as one might think. H. James Wilson and Paul R. Daugherty’s recent study on Collaborative Intelligence shows that companies have far more to gain by helping humans and AI to work together, rather than simply displacing human roles: ‘humans and AI actively enhance each other’s complementary strengths: the leadership, teamwork, creativity, and social skills of the former, and the speed, scalability, and quantitative capabilities of the latter.’

They identified five key principles that can help companies optimize collaboration between human and artificial intelligence:

  1. Reimagine business processes;
  2. embrace experimentation/employee involvement;
  3. actively direct AI strategy;
  4. responsibly collect data;
  5. and redesign work to incorporate AI and cultivate related employee skills.

It’s intriguing that the first is ‘reimagine’, as this may well be the operative word of the century when it comes to coping with the speed of technological change. For a while now I have felt strongly that many of the processes of the past no longer work in solving the problems of the future. Even companies who have been established for over 100 years, such as Deutsche Bank, are making massive workforce shifts, cutting over a fifth of their employee base, with 18,000 going by 2022. Sears, after a 132 year run, unable to embrace the revolution brought about by the combination of light-speed advances in tech and the democratisation of knowledge via the Internet was yet another brand stalwart to file for bankruptcy at the end of 2018.

AI can indeed analyse gigabytes of data at a speed no human brain can match. And if Ray Kurzweil, inventor and leading futurist is right, we will reach human level intelligence in AI by 2029. That is just one decade away. But there are many qualities humans possess which are near-impossible for an AI to simulate, except for in the movies! In order to progress, as individuals and as a species, we need to embrace this essential difference and what makes us human. Historically, there has been an emphasis on the kind of intellectual capabilities that we now turn to computers for, perhaps because computers did not exist and so we needed individuals with this kind of power.

(In fact, the word ‘computer’ — to think and to prune, to calculate — was actually used to reference a person who did calculations, the title of a job, a profession. Indeed, it was very common for companies and government departments to advertise jobs as “computers” — right up to the time when the word was used for early electronic devices, and in some cases until the 1970s.)

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We valued people with excellent memories, who could recite histories and genealogies and dates by rote, those with mathematical ability, literal ‘computing power’ in one sense. In ancient times, these would have been the architects able to calculate the exact geometric angles and weight distribution to assemble stable monolithic structures, or perhaps a general able to calculate the odds of victory by assessing the numbers of their troops versus the opponent’s, the trajectory of arrows and catapults, the necessary quantities of gunpowder to shatter stone.

However, we are now in an era where computers can do this for us in the blink of an eye, and IQ is increasingly the province of machines. We must now step away from these IQ-focused processing roles and manual labour roles, towards something more human, and much harder to define. Over the last few years, we have seen many new terms emerge to describe it: ‘soft skills’, EQ (Emotional Intelligence), and now AQ (Adaptability Quotient). The first-ever AQ metric was launched earlier in 2019 at an ‘Unlearn’ event in London, by AQai. This game-changing movement seeks to get to the heart of how and why we adapt, and how we can learn to adapt better (as well as unlearn and let go of the unnecessary processes and knowledge of the past).

TED speaker and consultant Greg Curtin, speaking at the AQai launch, used an apt metaphor when describing the difference between human and machine: ‘The robot can open the bottle of orange juice for me, but it’s my role to describe its taste to someone.’ The second principle of optimizing AI and human collaborations was to ‘embrace experimentation’, and that potentially says something profound about human identity. Is it our creativity that really separates us from animals and machines? It’s what artists have been saying for millennia, and there is a grain of truth to it. We are the only species in the world that creates art without clear function. In other words, fish may descry spirals in the sand to attract a mate, birds may build delicate nests to house their eggs, but no animal paints a ten-foot canvas simply to express an idea, feeling, or to move towards inner spiritual transcendence.

The important thing to hold in mind, however, is that not everyone is motivated by creativity. We do indeed need the dreamers, the imagineers, the visionaries to envisage new futures, to harness the wonderful power of human and the new disruptive technologies, working in harmony. However, data available to companies like Motivational Maps, who measure the nine essential motivators that drive human behaviour (modelled from Schrein’s Career Anchors and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs), would indicate that only 1 in 9 people would have Creator as their top motivator. Therefore, one could suppose only 1 in 9 people would be happy in a role that prioritises innovation and creation. As we contemplate a new future for humanity, it’s important not to view it through the blinkered lens of one individual’s experience, thereby limiting the solution to one aspect that may not serve the broad and diverse skills and motivators of humanity. We must instead view the problem, and solution, holistically.

There will be other ways for people to contribute to society than the artistic. Humans, in a bizarre way, are always following the technological innovations they create. For example, the horse and cart was made redundant with the invention of the locomotive and subsequently the development of the car, and in some ways one might feel sorry for all the cart-drivers. However, the development of the car has created a whole swathe of new jobs that previously never existed, from designers, to mechanics, to engineers. It’s estimated that GDPR requirements alone will create 75,000 jobs. Increasingly, we will also need teams of people to safely manage AI and interpret its findings and methodologies, particularly in the medical and legal spheres. As we develop more AI, and with greater sophistication, no doubt we will require more people to understand, tweak, maintain, interact and teach our AI.

Artificial Intelligence is of course just one aspect of our rapidly changing world, albeit, one that clearly commands a significant portion of public interest. Such is the pervasive concern around AI that it was even discussed on BBC’s The Ranganation (hosted by comedian Romesh Ranganathan). When the audience was asked whether they were excited or afraid of the coming evolutions in AI and what it would mean for society, the majority of people agreed that they were excited; however, it was by no means a landslide majority, and as much as a third still harboured anxiety. Like anything we humans create, AI can be used for good, but it can also be misappropriated, and it is likely that much of this fear is not so much around AI itself, but the companies and organisations developing it and how they might put it to use. With growing concerns that our conversations are being daily monitored via our phones and devices such as Alexa,it’s easy to see why there might be concern about the potential use of AI in the future.

The tightrope balance of our safety and our privacy is an area of topical debate. One might be comfortable, even champion, the use of AI, facial recognition and such in places of high security, like airports and mass crowd events, but perhaps feel very differently when this technology is deployed in our everyday streets.

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The reality is that while companies like Amazon have instigated remarkable societal and cultural changes, and revolutionised the business world, they have become entities that from one lens operate seemingly without consequence or ethical obligation. Amazon’s delivery speeds are made possible by huge leaps in technological deployment, from robotics to algorithms, but currently also leveraging a workforce slaving at minimum wage in some of the most psychologically and physically unhealthy working conditions imaginable. This is of course, until the autonomous vehicles combined with drones and mini robots for the final mile are able to replace the, quite frankly, disappointing exploitation of one slice of our working society. If we are truly going to adapt in preparation for this new world and changes, then we must consider the human implications of all we do: who will be affected by our choices, and how can we make sure no one will be left behind.

I vote for co-elevation.

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