I am often asked how business will be transformed by Artificial Intelligence. Benefits can be delivered in three main areas:
AI can certainly transform processes, for example delivering an enhanced customer experience for less cost. While everyone naturally focuses on the potential of this technology to cut jobs, what it is actually good at is taking on the rote, repetitive tasks – leaving human workers to do the things that technology is a long way from doing – like listening to customers and building rapport. AI can certainly learn about customers in order to serve them better, but frankly works best when augmenting a human worker.
It turns out that most customers also prefer to be able to self-serve their own solution, so long as they have the backup of speaking to a real person if they cannot get a result – with continuity.
AI is enabling the creation of entirely new types of product that could not have been possible previously. In fact we have been doing this for years, even if we may not recognise those innovations as AI any more.
Not all fields of AI are focused on building a generally cognitive machine, a field known as Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI) is much more applicable, and certainly more useful – today. This is the science of building machines that can perform narrow tasks. ANI has actually been with us for some years.
Around 25 years ago, it was not possible for a computer program to navigate a vehicle across a city. In the 1990s, we would have regarded any computer that could perform this task as AI. Today, we take satellite navigation systems for granted.
Once we have made a computer do something that was previously impossible, it ceases to be recognised as AI and becomes mainstream computer science. This is known as the AI effect, and it’s the reason we do not recognise the AI that is already with us.
AI will continue to stimulate the production of new and powerful products and services which will simply become mainstream computing.
AI, specifically Machine Learning, is capable of seeing patterns in data that are not visible to humans. Typical use cases include looking at banking data to predict your next purchase, or helping to spot fraud.
For many years, around half of all equities traded in the US are executed by AI algorithms that recognise the time is right to buy or sell. This sort of AI can help businesses to classify customers and understand what products might be the right fit.
So should we be worried about the threats to jobs?
AI is certainly going to continue to change the global economy, because technology has changed the global economy – and will continue to do so fundamentally and in new ways. This is just the on-going process of automation that started thousands of years ago.
Mankind has always tried to take away the manual heavy-lifting and repetitive and boring tasks. This is how our global economy has grown. From the days of the pyramids, to the agricultural revolution and on to the automation of our manufacturing sector – the human race has been working to build machines to take on the ‘heavy lifting’ tasks.
Cognitive technologies are just the next generation of this, and they will have an impact on the white collar worker in the same way that automation has been transforming blue collar work for decades.
Of course any impact to jobs caused by the efficiencies that AI is bringing need to be balanced against the benefits to society and the creation of new products and services.
So what does a post-AI economy look like?
While ANI solutions will continue to take on much of the repetitive work that is currently undertaken by humans, AGI is many, many decades away.
ANI will continue to impact our lives in many ways. Everyone in the corporate world wants to reduce costs, but they also want customers to enjoy a better service and to find new markets. Tightly defined applications of ANI will deliver demonstrable benefits in well defined situations – such as providing you with technical support on your mobile phone, or cautioning you on your spending habits via your banking app.
But there are many valuable areas where AI is a long way from delivering benefits. We can now identify what customers want, but AI won’t manage human relationships, or build rapport.
For me, a post-AI economy is doubtless going to be one of unprecedented efficiency and connectedness, but also one where areas such as customer experience might just become much more human again, as cognitive workers are freed up from admin to focus their attention on personal customer service – right at the point it is needed.