It seems odd that in the middle of what The Wall Street Journal recently called “the hottest job market in half a century,” we could be worried about millions of jobs being erased by new technologies. But a sea change in employment is a foreseeable, even imminent, future.
The catalyst for this upheaval is Artificial Intelligence (AI), sometimes also referred to as Augmented Intelligence. Because AI is already transforming business processes and job tasks at a head-spinning rate, it’s being called the fourth industrial revolution—or 4IR.
The first industrial revolution, in the 1700s, was powered by steam and characterized by mechanized processes. The second, in the 1800s, centered around electrical energy and mass production. The third—familiar to us all—is the age of computers and automation, which began in the 1900s.
According to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), a multinational professional services company, “the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) has finally come of age. And it’s pervading virtually every aspect of modern life. From consumers to manufacturers to cities, 4IR advancements are more accessible and less costly than just a few years ago. But 4IR is more than technology: as it gradually shapes how we live and work (and even play), it also ushers in a revolution of experience.”
What exactly is Artificial Intelligence, and what makes it such a transformative innovation? Everything from the voice-recognition technology of Siri and Alexa to self-driving cars and humanoid robots falls under the umbrella of AI. In a 2018 Medium article, technology writer Tannya D. Jajal defined AI as “a broad area of computer science that makes machines seem like they have human intelligence. If a machine can solve problems, complete a task, or exhibit other cognitive functions that humans can, then we refer to it as having artificial intelligence.”
“Completing a task” can be as routine as a Roomba® vacuuming your floor while you relax on the couch. Clearly, there are levels of complexity to AI applications. According to the FedEx Office Corporate Headquarters in Plano, FedEx Corp. is currently trialing a “same-day and last-mile” delivery robot that can take anything from a hot pizza to hardware supplies to a job site, office or home in a timely and secure fashion. The FedEx SameDay Bot is equipped with mapping functions, navigation safety features, all-terrain wheels and the ability to climb stairs.
Artificial Intelligence is divided into two primary categories: Narrow AI and General AI. Narrow AI is the technology that is all around us today. Leveraging machine learning and neural networks that enable deep learning, Narrow AI algorithms can be applied to computers and robotic machines to perform defined tasks based on specific data. Narrow AI is the technology that drives the most business value today.
General AI brings us into the realm of science fiction—the domain of super-intelligent robots that think like humans, including reasoning, abstract thinking, and potentially even having emotional intelligence. Can it happen? Possibly. But for now, the idea of humans being replaced by such super-robots isn’t a logical concern.
Predictions surrounding how AI will affect the workplace range from the positive, in terms of creating millions of new jobs, to the dire, projecting that automation will displace between 400 and 800 million workers by 2030. The Brookings Institute actually suggests that “The United States would look like Syria or Iraq, with armed bands of young men with few employment prospects other than war, violence or theft.” Conversely, the World Economic Forum forecasts that machines and algorithms in the workplace could create 58 million net new jobs in the next few years.
Disruptive technologies tend to create new jobs while eventually eliminating others. Consider the FedEx SameDay Bot. The convenience for the customer is obvious, but is it taking away a delivery job from a human—or is it creating new jobs behind the scenes, albeit ones that require further training and education? Or both?
Questions like this are part of the reason it is hard to define the profile of a new economy driven by advances in AI, both in the world overall and closer to home in Collin County.
Vladimir Alperovich, a Senior Solution Architect in Machine Learning and AI Applications at Ericsson’s Market Area North America Headquarters in Plano, likens our view of the future to weather predictions. He explains, “When a hurricane is far away, you have this cone of probabilities—it could hit anywhere between Florida and New York. AI is like a hurricane coming toward us, but it’s pretty far away. The impact could be in one place, or in a lot of places. It could be Category 2 or Category 5. We won’t know until it gets closer.”
In a sense, AI can be leveraged to predict its own landfall. According to Alperovich, AI is a valuable management tool for streamlining internal processes, which can result in greater efficiencies for companies. “AI can measure performance to give managers insights into productivity, ultimately transforming overall business practices,” he says. The result could mean using AI to automate certain repetitive tasks currently performed by employees, such as data entry and payroll, while hiring more workers for sales, innovation, or customer service, where human creativity and empathy are irreplaceable.
Alperovich also points out that AI applications in use today are bringing greater precision to many important fields, such as medical diagnostics. “We have applications today that can recognize skin cancers by comparing a sample to millions of pictures of cancers. Even a top dermatologist may only have seen a thousand examples. As a patient, I would prefer the machine diagnosis.”
As in the medical field, AI applications can be a vital adjunct to human endeavor by performing tasks in delicate, dangerous or extreme environments. Take the Mars Rover Opportunity. For 14 years “Oppy” explored another planet, collecting and transmitting photographic and geological data to scientists on Earth.
When a machine governed by Artificial Intelligence is coupled with a power supply, actuators and components such as stereovision, cameras, infrared sensors, wheels, wings or “legs” and manipulators (“arms”), countless varieties of intelligent machines can be built to perform specific tasks.
We’re already benefiting from it. Biorobotics Lab manufactures a snake-bot used in search and rescue operations. The robot insinuates itself into treacherous terrain such as collapsed buildings to seek out survivors.
The Plano Police Department’s Bomb Squad uses multiple robots in hazardous situations, including a Remotec F6B developed by Northrop Grumman, which can be worked remotely to seize suspicious packages, drag an injured person out of danger, and other tasks.
In the operating room, surgeons may use robotic assistants like the da Vinci Surgical System—used at Baylor Scott & White The Heart Hospital – Plano—with its ultra-flexible controls to perform minimally invasive surgery.
A solar-powered autonomous robot created by ecoRobotix is a precision weed killer used in agriculture. It enables farmers to use 20 times less herbicide and protect valuable crops as well as the environment.
ReWalk makes a robotic exoskeleton, whose motorized leg braces can help disabled patients to stand upright and walk.
Very few occupations can be totally automated. However, a large percentage of job-related tasks can be, and this applies to both white-collar and blue-collar functions. Office support roles and physical labor (everything from dishwashing to mechanical repairs) will be among the most affected in the near term by intelligent automation. In the longer term, an innovation like self-driving vehicles is expected to put truck drivers out of work, more so than bus or taxi drivers, according to Goldman Sachs. It’s worth noting that some of these changes may be decades away—plenty of time for the coming generations to prepare themselves for a new job landscape.
Worldwide management consulting firm McKinsey projects that numerous industries are poised to increase employment opportunities or create net new demand, regardless of AI. These include many service industries, healthcare, education, infrastructure and building (everyone from architects to construction workers), renewable energy, the arts and technology.
The imminence of an AI-driven future has clear implications for education. The World Economic Forum has written, “to prevent an undesirable lose-lose scenario—technological change accompanied by talent shortages, mass unemployment and growing inequality—it is critical that businesses take an active role in supporting their existing workforces through reskilling and upskilling, [and] that individuals take a proactive approach to their own lifelong learning.”
Monica Shortino is Director of Social Innovation at Capital One Financial Services, located in Plano’s Legacy Business District. According to her, Capital One is highly engaged with helping Americans succeed in the 21st Century, through numerous programs under the company’s Future Edge initiative. She says, “We feel it’s not just up to us at Capital One but all of our corporate partners in the community to rally and start building skills for the future.”
Capital One’s Future Edge program encompasses training and educational resources in digital skills for students, non-profits, and mid-career workers. Their Basic Training AI-Botcamp is one such program, created for ninth and tenth graders. AI-Botcamp is a three-module course in programming that enables the students to try their hand at Python coding and create their own Markov Chain Bots, simple AIs that are programmed with a variety of responses, and thus can hold limited, rudimentary conversations. The students can even model the look of their bots on their favorite celebrities. Through the program, students who may not have felt drawn to STEM before, discover that it can be fun.
Speaking of the future of AI in our economy, Shortino says, “Technology has increased jobs and spending power over time. Humanity has been able to adapt through all the workforce revolutions, and abundance has grown from that. We continue to evolve as technology and inventions have continued to help the way we work.
“If you think of AI as taking over some of the mundane, repetitive tasks and giving humans more bandwidth to do critical thinking, to problem-solve, be creative—what a powerful opportunity that will be.”
When asked if people should be afraid of an AI future, Shortino concludes, “I think the future is unknown in a lot of realms. Be willing to evolve your skills and no matter what happens we’ll be ready.”
We don’t know exactly what the future will look like. Technology, like any tool, is only as good as its user. At its best, AI holds the promise of feeding the world, liberating human labor from perilous jobs like mining, and enabling new forms of transportation that would make getting stuck in traffic jams on Central Expressway a remote memory. It could exponentially increase our knowledge of environments where man can’t survive unaided, like under the ocean and beyond our galaxy. It could happen. The choice is ours.