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The Fuzzy Future of AI and Jobs

Are we headed towards a world where machines do everything? Will people be left on the sidelines, queuing for handouts and hungering for meaningful work? These are questions at the heart of Techonomy’s mission and the conversations we’re curating now. An amazing breakfast roundtable on AI at the recent Techonomy conference surfaced a typically astonishing diversity of ideas about where it’s going. My own view remains cautiously optimistic that the net effect of automation will not fundamentally be to destroy jobs. But the future is complex.

We’ve recently published three articles that continue that conversation. Paul Daugherty, Accenture’s chief technology officer, penned for us a provocative overview of why he’s excited and optimistic about AI. Daugherty writes that it “may be the single most disruptive technology the world has seen since the Industrial Revolution,” but that Accenture’s research suggests it will make major contributions to economic growth. Vivienne Ming, herself a brain scientist and AI entrepreneur, nonetheless took a look at the darker side of AI’s potential, writing a trenchant and engaging fictional account about the day a financial analyst learned he was losing his job to an AI. (Both pieces appear in Techonomy’s 2017 magazine, and both Daugherty and Ming spoke at Techonomy.)

Then our regular contributors John Hagel and John Seely Brown wrote an article that, while not specifically about AI, makes a suggestive and highly optimistic point about the world it might help create. In describing a new sort of job they call the “trusted advisor,” they explain how the Internet of Things and advanced analytics may lead to new employment. As more and more data accumulates around us about what we do, what we like, and what’s happening in our world, they predict that real humans will have the job of remotely tapping into that information to help us by making concrete, highly personalized recommendations for how we can accomplish things. It’s worth a read if you wring your hands about a jobless future.

The optimistic angle was underscored for me when my colleague Josh Kampel and I sat down recently in Chicago at the RSNA conference for radiologists, with Jeroen Tas, CEO of Connected Care & Health Informatics for Philips, a Techonomy partner. A big theme of public discussions we’d had there was how tech will change radiology. Nervousness is gathering in the field about whether a combination of outsourcing and machine intelligence may replace the human doctor/analyst on site. Philips, which makes many key radiological devices, has in fact started adding AI to the analysis tools radiologists use in interpreting images from things like X-rays and CT-scanners.

Tas’s point was that while it might be the case that AI will over time begin to replace some of the routine functions a radiologist has historically performed, the fact is that we still know almost nothing about the human body and mind and how it all really works. As we get more exact info and make more sophisticated decisions about treating medical conditions and insuring population health, there will remain an indispensable role for radiologists. By applying AI we could help the radiologist perform deeper diagnostic analysis for each individual and connect him or her more usefully to a patientโ€™s entire health experience. Machines may be able to substitute for what radiologists have done in the past, but such doctors will remain needed to come to new conclusions based on newly sophisticated information about how we tick.

Finally, I recently sat down with Dr. Michael Bjorn of the Ericsson ConsumerLab in Sweden, who has just released a mind-blowing report about future consumer digital trends and practices. Among the many arresting insights his group arrived at in a survey of advanced internet users in major cities is that almost half of them worry that AI and robotics will cause lots of people to lose their jobs. Yet at the same time, more of these well-informed tech users like than dislike the concept of having an AI assist them at their workplace. And a full 20% go so far as to be willing to consider having an AI as a leader of their country!

Bottom line when it comes to jobs and AI: there is none. We just don’t know. But the idea is tantalizing that new opportunities and challenges may open new job opportunities, like with Hagel and Brown’s notion of the trusted advisor. It would be good if some of that became evident in the short term, before fear gets even worse.

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