Artificial intelligence: A skynet future or the greatest story of humankind?

Technology has accelerated human progress to unprecedented levels. Three centuries ago, the first industrial revolution altered society with the introduction of machines that have since become factory fixtures and key instruments in the manufacturing process. Today, technology is once again bringing humanity to the precipice of a new era, typified by the rapid digitalisation of core operations across sectors.

Now, more than ever, technology is taking centre stage and transforming work in the new digital economy. While technologies were mostly relegated to support functions in the recent past, the age of the digital economy redesignates the role of modern technology as a business enabler, with progressive technologies such as blockchain, the Internet-of-Things, Big Data, Virtual Reality, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) quickly altering work paradigms in modern enterprises across a multitude of industries.

The rising number of progressive technology use cases each day translates to a pressing need to reassess companies’ fundamentals. Given drastic changes in the nature of work, companies that fail to integrate technology into their operational processes will definitely find themselves hard-pressed to maintain their competitive edge.

The Rise of AI

Back in 2016,Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai commented on the world’s imminent transition from “a ‘mobile-first’ to an ‘AI-first’ world”. His prediction rings true two years later, with AI quickly shaping up to be the most prominent among present-day progressive technologies due to its unparalleled potential to surpass and augment human performance and its ability to adapt and learn through experience.

AI programmes were seen to topple champions at Chess and even Poker, a game highly dependent on the ability to read facial and body expressions. Beyond winning, these

well-documented instances lend credibility to AI’s ability to think analytically instead of merely solving problems through brute force.

Given the capability of machines to think independently, there is very little doubt in the potential of AI to shift paradigms in organisations’ operations and alter the fundamentals that have defined jobs for decades.

AI and the Future of Work

A popular science fiction trope involves AIs going rogue, upending the relationship between man and machine by becoming the overlords. While seemingly far-fetched, this pessimistic view of AI is rooted in the fear of AI technologies advancing to a future where automated jobs render the human workforce obsolete.

The impact of AI on work has been a controversial issue debated in recent years. One school of thought proposes that AI should be viewed and treated with caution, while an opposing viewpoint holds a far more optimistic and realistic outlook, envisioning a future where the quality of jobs is enhanced through the integration of AI. Rather than AI causing mass unemployment, signs are pointing towards a future where AI automates labour-intensive and repetitive tasks, augmenting human capabilities for complex work.

AGartner study forecasts that one in five workers engaged in mostly non-routine tasks will leverage AI in their jobs by 2022. The same study also found human-machine partnerships to outperform human experts or AI programmes working on their own. These partnerships amplify the competitive advantages offered by each party; humans are better at making intuitive decisions based on knowledge, while AIs are capable of processing and analysing large amounts of data, producing information that facilitates the human decision-making process.

There is a common fear that embracing AI and automation will translate to large-scale job cuts across sectors. While AI will change work as we know it, AI will not completely obliterate jobs requiring human discretion and critical analysis; rather, automation will eliminate and overhaul antiquated business models through more efficient and effective ways of working.

Losses and Gains

According toGartner, AI will eliminate 1.8 million jobs by 2020, but would also have created 2.3 million jobs during the same period. Although AI-powered automation may eliminate some jobs, new roles will arise that require new tech skills. A survey by Cognizant supports this, revealing that AI and automation technologies create more effective knowledge workers, whose work can move up the value chain, with time-consuming and repetitive tasks out of the way. For example, of more than 500 businesses polled about the current usefulness of AI-driven analytics, 55% found it helpful in reducing costs; 47% said it was useful in understanding customer requirements, and 43% reported that it helped ensure better process throughput and quality.

As a result, people need to stay ahead of the curve, not by being “faster or cheaper” but by developing, honing and capitalising on their uniquely human capabilities that cannot be replicated today by automated software. Such activities include collaboration and teamwork with a highly diverse workforce, which could include AI-powered robots.

Adapting to the Future

During corporate real estate association CoreNet Global’s recent Asia Pacific Summit, we also highlighted how AI is fast becoming an integral part of the workplace, a development that will impact virtually every industry in the world. Organisations would then do well to anticipate and take essential measures to mitigate the impact of disruption to the status quo. After all, the idea of job enhancement is simply to improve the quality of human work, and not to replace humans.

In this regard, we foresee upskilling and retraining to become the cornerstone of enhanced jobs. As proven by research, it is far more effective to integrate technology into organisational processes rather than replace the human workforce with machines. Retraining will thus be essential to equip employees with the necessary skills to excel in a technology-driven, AI-first world. This will ensure that existing talents are maximised to their fullest potential through technology, rather than squandered.

The Future of Work

We may still be in the early days of AI. However, with the speed at which technology has advanced over recent years, what we view as cutting-edge today may not hold the same level of significance a couple of months down the road.

In the coming years, it is likely that any bottlenecks for creating and integrating AI will lessen, and developers will devise even more ways to enhance the capabilities of machines. As with all technologies, costs will drop as research and development gives rise to more cost-effective methods of production, catalysing mainstream adoption amongst consumers and businesses.

If the results of the recent studies are any indication, we might be standing on the edge of a new Golden Age of humanity, ushered into the new world by AI, arguably the greatest story of our time. Look forward to the future.

Ben Pring isVP and Managing Director, Center for the Future of Work, Cognizant, and Peter Andrew is Senior Director of Workplace Strategies at CBRE Asia Pacific.