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Will machine learning replace human know-how?

AI has the potential to completely reshape tomorrow’s workplace — the only question is how.

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Robot illustration.

In 2014, two researchers from MIT published groundbreaking work on the topic of automation and ignited a pool of social anxiety that had been collecting for decades. Their findings brought to the mainstream an idea that had previously existed mostly at the scientific and ideological margins of the conversation: Advances in artificial intelligence and robotics are about to take over not just the menial, repetitive tasks generally associated with computers, but a large proportion of human work, overall.

At the time, many in the media and general industry dismissed their findings as alarmist, arguing that AI is destined to create just as many opportunities for work as it fills. If they’re right, then AI would follow the same basic pattern as other widely labor-saving innovations through history, from the loom to the printing press to the office computer.

There’s just one problem with the assumption that future tech development will progress roughly like it has in the past: We’re not the ones pushing tech forward anymore.

Machine learning changes everything

In short, machine learning puts the emphasis for problem-solving on the computer, not the human directing it. Automated pattern-finding algorithms can take enormous masses of information and find associations no human could ever hope to. What this means is that for many complex tasks, the human role is no longer to use computers as tools to find solutions, but to define problems for computers and let the computer find the solutions on its own.

This fundamentally changes the human relationship to work, and it means that technology can continue taking steps forward even before human engineers truly understand the previous ones. The pace of change won’t be directed by human needs, and thus there’s no reason to assume that technological change will necessarily fulfill them. Workers, especially young workers, should gravitate toward those professions that will avoid replacement by AI by making use of it — but what will a job like that actually look like?

Where humans still shine

It’s not all bad news for workers, as AI does still struggle in certain areas where humans can still excel, and those deficiencies could hint at a stable future role for human labor. That’s because, despite some high-profile attempts at artificial creativity like AI songwriting and AI portraiture, virtual brains are still basically naive and aimless. If given specific-enough instructions, they can sometimes approximate what we think of as inspiration — but just as often they show their unique lack of abstract understanding of the human world. This is where humans will need to lend a guiding hand.

To not only navigate this quickly changing business world but keep pace within it, businesses must focus on developing a team that’s both comfortable and capable of working with AI. That means not just hiring tech-savvy workers, but forming partnerships with industries and professionals that can help them stay afloat in choppy, unpredictable waters. These are the people who understand how modern AI can be deployed to not only automate previously human jobs, but augment those jobs with all new abilities.

Divesh Sisodraker, CPA, CA, and President, Chief Product Officer at Vision Critical, sees great potential in how AI can make the lives of knowledge workers — people like accountants, writers, or computer programmers whose work output consists primarily of knowledge — easier and more efficient.

“When you give knowledge workers the time and the space to get the rote work off their desks, that gives them more time to do real knowledge work and apply their professional judgement,” he explained.

At Vision Critical, the team is currently using AI in a set of applications called CRIS (Customer Relationship Intelligence Science), integrated into the latest version of the company’s customer intelligence software platform. Similar to how Cortana and Siri offer support to Microsoft and Apple customers, CRIS assists Vision Critical users by providing recommendations for the best times to engage their community members, how to improve their survey questions to improve response rates, and how to determine the best segment for an activity. Technologies like natural language processing also show promise in streamlining the effort users are required to invest in analysing their results.

“Rather than having to read through thousands of responses in an open-ended question, a machine can apply algorithms to model topics and tell you what people are saying,” Sisodraker said. This allows a customer insights team to focus on top-level strategy rather than tedious data mining.

Where artificial intelligence meets the regular kind

It’s jobs like this, where complex tasks are executed with speed and efficiency, that will be most empowered by AI. Automation in this context doesn’t rob humans of work to do, but frees them to focus on those aspects of the job that were always most important, but which were also the most practically difficult to address.

Tom Davenport, an academic researcher in business applications of AI, recently made this point in the Journal of Accountancy: “At some point, there might be some job loss on the margins,” he said, “but mostly we’re giving people more sophisticated work to do than just looking through documents.”

Those sorts of modern, tech-infused positions may produce some of the most important new innovations for business quite simply because, with AI in hand, these workers have the time and ability to pursue their most intriguing ideas. It takes a multitalented employee to pull off such a complex task, someone with a wide skill set and great familiarity with cutting-edge tech.

“Knowledge workers need to continue to get smarter and better because their job is going to change every single year,” Sisodraker stated. “Viewed through the proper lens, AI is going to be a huge boon. But if you’re static in your profession, it’s going to hurt you.”

In tomorrow’s workforce, previously labour-intensive jobs will be opened to a more creative, enjoyable workflow while remaining among the most financially stable options around. The doctors, lawyers, and executives may very well end up being automated away by the relentless pace of technological progress, but it’s the programmers and accountants who could end up inheriting the Earth.

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