After the Hype
2016 has been the year of bots, AI, and automation the beginning of 2017 seems to be the time of looking at wider implications. There is a lot of discussion going on in academia, politics, and on the web, e.g. the one spurred by Denis Pombriant with a very readable article, and two follow-ups here and here, in November and December 2016. Denis, supported by Vinnie Mirchandani, took a very optimistic stance – something that is highly important in times of simplification and pessimism.
There is no doubt in my mind that technologies that are driven by artificial intelligence can have a tremendous benefit for both, companies and organizations, as well as consumers.
Consumer technology like Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, generally intelligent home automation, self driving cars, etc., can simplify peoples’ lives tremendously by taking away routine activities or making it just easier to execute them.
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Organizations can create improved customer and employee experiences via automating existing processes, and they could create entirely new experiences using technology – doing things more effectively. Opportunities to do so can be found within the complete value chain.
Automation also serves the aspect of doing the same, or more, at less cost, i.e. more efficiently.
And in the last point lies a catch.
This means that less people are needed to deliver on an amount of work. This means less employed people and, on a first view, more unemployment. This means less disposable income.
Because advances in technology have the tendency to benefit only a few, which are those who deliver the automation systems and those who are able to invest into them.
In a pure, shareholder value driven, capitalistic system this means that capital is more important than work.
The best-known arguments against this pessimistic scenario are that
- Technology does not automate jobs but tasks, particularly dull, dangerous, and dirty ones
- History shows that technology itself creates new jobs, or a variation of this theme
- AI and bots are not good enough to handle everything – a lot of work needs to be done behind the scenes by real humans
- Growth that comes with the productivity gains creates even more jobs
- There already is, or will be a shortage of personnel, due to demography
I guess they are all true, although, as a Nota Bene to the history argument, technologists argue that backward-looking analysis is not good at predicting the future.
On the other hand there are arguments like
- Productivity grains deliver growth only if businesses do not focus on efficiencies
- Technology contributes to increasing income gaps
- The tasks that can be taken over get increasingly complex (‘disruption from below’)
A recent report by Pew Research found that there is a lot of fear around the longer-term availability of jobs, but not necessarily an imminent feeling of being threatened. This fear also was mirrored by the discussions that went on in the aftermath of Denis Pombriant’s articles.
On the other hand this and this research by McKinsey shows that adoption of automation technology will take some time and not all areas of work are susceptible for automation at all. On a personal note I doubt their assessment on the application of expertise …
So where is the Truth?
It is fairly clear that there is a lot of fear and uncertainty. And it is obvious that there is a combination of factors that drive this fear, including economical ones like a (right or wrong) feeling of being cut off the wealth ladder.
It is also clear AI and robots will not take over the world by storm. But it is equally clear that the level of automation that especially AI offers goes far beyond the realm of physical work. This is something on a level that we haven’t seen before and that reminds me of ‘disruption from below’ – automating the simpler tasks and getting ever more into the complex ones.
How does it link to Customer Experience – The Way Ahead?
There are two main themes about this
- Computers and humans have different strengths, computers regularly are better with numbers where humans are better when it comes to connecting the dots
- There is a link between employee experience – and their perception – and customer experience.
Combining them shows the path into future. Engaged employees that are secure about their own future can concentrate on delivering superior experiences. Great software helps employees concentrating on what is really important by taking away routine work that does not create much value; on the other hand it is already now visible that customers are looking more and more to the web when it comes to inquiries and sophisticated software can avoid the need to repeatedly provide the same pieces of information – thus diminishing the customer experience.
The way ahead, for the foreseeable future at least, can lie only in man-machine collaboration where the machine takes over the dirty, dull, dangerous, the routine tasks and the human concentrates on non-routine work that cannot get automated – yet.
Will this lead to fewer people being needed in the workforce? I don’t know. What I do know is that work will change, that humans will concentrate more on ‘judgment work’, as opposed to knowledge work, and physical work, and that we can expect types of work to emerge that most of us don’t even dream of at the moment.
Interesting times lie ahead of us!