Predictions of widespread job losses due to the emergence of artificial intelligence are outlandish and we need only look to history to see the opportunity offered by embracing new tech, writes Dowshan Humzah
In the recent Director article “AI: the end of leadership as we know it” we gained a glimpse of the potential impact of artificial intelligence on business leaders as we enter the next phase of the digital revolution.
The story quotes a McKinsey report claiming that the rollout of artificial intelligence could result in a fifth of the global workforce losing their jobs by 2030.
This may, however, be outlandish as it does not highlight the potential for new business opportunities and the greater need for human and personal interaction as barriers fall.
There are parallels here with predictions, at the turn of the millennium, about the internet and its potential negative impact on the global workforce.
The expected threats did not materialise and we are now seeing more employment and economic development than any time before.
So how can we gain a more realistic picture of what lies ahead? In trying to assess the future impact and opportunities from artificial intelligence, it is crucial to learn the lessons of the past.
Industrial revolutions – past and present
The first three industrial revolutions transformed the way organisations, and societies at large, operate: in the first, the steam engine mechanised production making rural societies more industrial and urban; and in the second, energy sources enabled mass production and globalisation.
The third revolution has seen the automation of production and marketplaces. The internet, mobile and social media have driven industry and capital markets enabling globalisation and outsourcing – providing accessibility for small start-ups in distant parts of the globe. But while digital has greatly increased business productivity, it can be argued that it may not have significantly improved the quality of life and happiness of individuals.
Many say we are now entering the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ – by means of the cloud, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, biotech, robotics and nanotechnology, among others.
This revolution is increasing transparency, breaking down more barriers and making us more interconnected than ever before – creating newer, larger and more efficient marketplaces.
A changing world order
Far from taking away jobs and opportunities, the unleashing effect of digital has seen organisations, particularly from the developing world, reach out to their home populations, as their spending power increases and connectivity improves,as well as to global markets.
In the space of a decade, the list of the world’s 500 largest corporations has transformed.
In 2004, over 40 per cent were North American with second spot taken by European companies.
Now Asia is home to more Fortune Global 500 companies than North America. China alone – with just under 20 per cent – has more than the UK, Germany and France combined.
The real challenge for organisations is how best to embrace this change and realise the opportunity of larger and more-connected markets.
Inventing the future
The leading tech companies of today have subscribed to the optimistic maxim ‘we cannot predict the future but we can invent it’. The opportunity-seizing Microsoft, Alphabet, Amazon, Apple and Facebook are the five largest companies in the world ranked by market capitalisation.
Looking further back, this was successfully achieved pre-millennium by telecoms giant Orange, with which I had first-hand experience.
The company had a big idea: ‘optimism’ which permeated everything it did, including its narrative to the City. It was said that those who created and then drove Orange shared a view not about what technology could do, but what it ought to do for people.
I recall one meeting where founding CEO Hans Snook asked “where’s the product manager for the off button?” ’. It was poignant recognition of the need for people and tech to switch off sometimes.
The focus was very much on the impact of innovation and how it better serves us – as opposed to us being controlled by it.
Making artificial intelligence our servant
I challenge the McKinsey prediction of AI’s impact on employment as the history discussed above proves that with innovation comes increased entrepreneurial and employment opportunity.
I believe that this will continue as the new digital technologies further build on the third revolution. The smart technology of AI may take us to uncharted territories across personal, business and social contexts – but many of the skills and jobs of the future in the new knowledge economy cannot be envisioned yet.
To see, and even invent, the true transformative nature of this revolution – let’s call it 3.5 for the moment – we need to be consumed by what technology should do for society, not just what it could do.
A better balance between applying simple behavioural science to technological innovation and making it our slave can result in real positive societal impact – be it social capital, the opportunity gain of free time, or happiness – as well as the obvious improvements to productivity and GDP.
Dowshan Humzah is business transformation and digital specialist sitting on the boards of various organisations. He is a fellow of the Institute of Directors.