How artificial intelligence will disrupt the workplace

21 Apr, 2017

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a buzzword for 2017. How will this new technology impact the workplace? Slowly we’re seeing the use of AI-driven chatbots, analytics and even written reports through tools such as Wordsmith.

But as AI becomes more powerful, what will the workplace of the future look like? Will jobs be secured or replaced? With the rise of specific technology, the impact it’ll have on society – and consequently the workplace – can only be discovered when it’s embraced.

Tech is unpredictable
Even though the first mobile networks launched in South Africa in 1994, no one imagined we’d be unable to function without smartphones today. During the infancy of the internet, no one could have predicted the current digital landscape.

These two technologies – the mobile device and the internet – have had astonishing impact, touching every industry and creating jobs that previously didn’t exist. Looking at the growth of AI and the money invested in it – it can be predicted its impact will be significant. We can start thinking about what new jobs will be created, what jobs will become obsolete and what new knowledge it will bring.

A new type of intelligence
One of the key aspects of AI that digital visionary Kevin Kelly touches on is how we’re dealing with a new type of intelligence which thinks differently than humans do. This was seen during Google’s AlphaGo AI win over professional Go player Lee Sedol, where commentators claimed some of the moves the AI program made were not ‘human’ at all.

What happens when you combine human intelligence with emerging AI? For the most part, man’s intelligence is limited by how much he can remember. IBM’s Watson computing system, a household name in the AI world, has millions of documents, including an encyclopaedia, and it doesn’t forget.

It’s an interplay between computer technology and human ingenuity that’s seeing Watson perform a number of functions like creating media plans, shopping recommendations, diagnosing rare diseases, assisting in oncology departments and new medicine research.

Kelly argues we’re on the brink of a second industrial revolution, one where every business will soon be able to use AI for assistance. AI will transform industries much like electricity did in the 1800s.

The elephant in the room
If computer systems are performing tasks that traditionally require human intelligence, like decision-making, what happens to people’s jobs?

A report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), predicts five million job losses caused by AI and robotics by 2020. It’s a substantial figure that’ll impact the white-collar office and admin staff. This topic is creating great concern for industry leaders such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates, but is rarely discussed by politicians.

While humans’ ability to innovate alongside AI systems certainly opens up the future for unique new sectors, in the short term we’re looking at a highly disruptive period of time. One where employment can’t simply be increased by the growth of new industries – which was the case in the first industrial revolution. Customer service and support across sectors, and in retail, will take particular strain when AI gains momentum in broader industry.

Exponential tech growth
Director of engineering at Alphabet, Ray Kurzweil, explains the Law of Accelerating Returns, showing tech growth is exponential. This means AI could assist in addressing human challenges – like decision making armed with extensive insights (in medicine, for example). Or eliminating human error through predictive technology and early warning systems, in driverless cars and digital assistants.

At this stage, all we can be certain of is AI is making its way to the workplace and there’s a paradigm shift that lies ahead with human and AI working in tandem. It’s set to be one of the most interesting times in human history.