Clearing up the AI anxiety
Emerging technologies have been disrupting industries and causing widespread unemployment long before computers. Our anxiety about AI can be put down to one thing: uncertainty about what AI actually is.
What we define as AI technology is very much in flux. Before they were available to the mass market, the idea of Siri or Google Maps would be touted as cutting-edge AI. But now they’re just Siri and Google Maps. A technology is only referred to as artificial intelligence until we get comfortable with it, which is why the term is often hard to pin down.
The key to understanding AI’s modern application – and future potential – is to define the difference between what is considered a “weak AI” and a “strong AI”.
Weak (or Narrow) AI
Weak AI is built to focus on a specific, predefined task. It’s what we see today in self-driving cars, or factory robots. It can perform certain tasks much better than humans, but does not have the same breadth of capabilities.
Strong (or General) AI
Strong AI is difficult to even imagine, let alone design and build. It’s a human-like, independent-thinking, reasoning, and conscious machine. It would perform as well as humans (or better) in every way.
All current and proposed applications of AI are considered ‘narrow’. So even though the technology’s future is often imagined to look like something out of The Terminator or I, Robot – that’s far fetched even for a strong AI.
What’s happening to our jobs?
Even if the world isn’t taken over by machines, the same cannot be said for our jobs. In fact, it’s almost certain that jobs will continue to be automated.
A report by the the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) identified that around 46% of jobs in New Zealand will be automated within the next decade. The hardest hit? People who are labourers, machine operators, or in administrative roles.
It seems a no-brainer that businesses would choose to adopt AI into their processes. The technology provides a vast new toolset for organisations to gain significant competitive advantage through lowering labour costs, improving production efficiency, and reducing human error.
A recent survey by AI Forum reports that the top five ways New Zealand organisations will use AI, are to:
- Make sense of vast amounts of data.
- Automate tedious or dangerous work.
- Support decision making with speed and accuracy.
- Reduce business costs by automation.
- Optimise business processes.
New Zealand’s agriculture industry is now reaping the benefits of AI. Systems that can accurately count an entire orchard are already deployed in the field. They also have the capability to make precise predictions about future crops – preventing human error and saving tens of millions of dollars in wastage.
Our irreplaceable skill set
Of course, not all jobs can be automated. AI is best used in narrow situations for repetitive and routine tasks. Sending a follow-up email, crunching large amounts of data, or doing tasks that are dangerous to humans – these are the domains of AI.
Machines struggle in the creative, social, and emotional intelligence spaces – where humans naturally excel. Consider our agriculture industry example – cost savings and excess labour can be redistributed to areas of the business that complement a human skill set. This could be fostering supply chain relations, making important strategic decisions that require outside-the-box thinking, or marketing a product in creative ways.
It’s reassuring to think that labour can be redistributed into new roles within a business. As postal mail gradually decreased, NZ Post explored ways to shift staff doing jobs that became automated. They implemented ‘Future Zone’, a programme to help displaced staff upskill or retrain so they can find new work within the organisation, or elsewhere.
As AI continues to mature, upskilling staff becomes increasingly important. It’s one of the key ways organisations can reduce redundancies and foster workplace satisfaction.
Creating new roles
It might be easier said than done, but the best way to offset automation’s effects is to create new jobs and industries. So what would these new roles look like?
Firstly, building and maintaining AI technology requires a human touch. Paul Daugherty, author of Human + Machine: Reimagining Work in the Age of AI suggests that three varieties of role will emerge as AI becomes further integrated into businesses:
People who train the technology to function the way we want it to; for example, ensuring a chatbot behaves appropriately when speaking to customers.
They’ll explain the actions of AI, and why it provides a given output. For example, explaining why the AI suggests firing the best performing staff member.
People who balance business profitability/productivity against societal benefits/consequences when implementing AI technology. They’ll evaluate the risks of letting a robot handle important decisions, and when a human should intervene.
New jobs and industries also emerge for those who use the technology. Consider the internet explosion over the past 25 years. Web development, e-commerce, digital marketing, online media and many other multi-billion dollar industries have sprung up, and created just as many new jobs in the process.
It’s exciting to see how evolving technology – in spaces like artificial intelligence and machine learning – will continue to impact our lives and occupations.
It’s inevitable, so let’s embrace it
The way we see it, AI is a logical next step to helping New Zealand businesses grow. At Springload, we’re really keen to continue researching – and keep on building – human-centred digital experiences with AI. With our value-driven approach to everything we do, we fancy our chances on the world stage, too.
New Zealand is built on Kiwi ingenuity and a good-natured, can-do attitude. So it’s fair to say we’re well positioned to make the most of AI taking on the heavy-lifting. It’ll let us be free to focus on what we’re uniquely good at – doing as little as humanly possible.
- ServiceNow. Today’s State of Work: At the Breaking Point.
- Deloitte. Smarter Together: Why artificial intelligence needs human-centred design
- Vox. The big debate about the future of work, explained
- ZDNet. New Zealand examining AI ethical framework and action plan.
- Inc. Robots Will Take Your Job. Here’s Why You Should Be Excited.