From The Matrix to Wargames and iRobot to Metropolis, movies and novels have threatened us with a revolution of AI and robots for decades, whether that’s through a violent uprising or just replacing us at our jobs. Today, those theoretical dystopian futures seem more realistic than ever.
With the growth of smart assistants and advanced machine learning, there is a growing concern that in the decades to come, there may be very little work for humans to do. But for just a moment, let’s set aside our apocalyptic tendencies and consider that working with AI could actually provide a better, more fulfilling workspace in the future.
A new industrial revolution
Humanity has gone through three distinctive industrial revolutions over the past few hundred years, from factory development, to mass production, and eventually computer digitization. Like the revolutions of the past, this one is about automation, but it’s very much a 21st century version.
As Jody Bailey, CTO at online tech-training company PluralSight explained to us though, the new industrial revolution we’re going through, is much broader and deeper than automation innovations of the past.
“There are so many flavors of [automation],” he told Digital Trends. “What I think we’re going to see in the future is that intelligence, whether it’s AI or knowledge, is going to become like electricity, where basically you just ‘plug in’ to it. If you think about the internet, it’s kind of like that already. If you think about augmenting people’s knowledge and think about your smartphone or Google, we no longer have those arguments about facts because someone just Google’s it. In the future I think we’re going to see more and more augmentation of knowledge for people.”
“Intelligence, whether it’s AI or knowledge, is going to become like electricity where basically you just ‘plug in’ to it.”
While the rise in fake news and filter bubbles might contend with Bailey’s somewhat rosy look at contemporary societies’ use of information online, his idea of making access to knowledge more intuitive in years to come seems likely to bear fruit. Today, search might be more curated to the user, but it’s faster and more accessible on a variety of devices than ever before. With augmented reality and ever evolving input technologies like voice commands, that seems like a trend that will continue in the years to come.
Bailey highlighted how such advancements have been taking place in some careers for years already. Take the responsibilities of an airline pilot, for example, which have changed drastically over the years. While he or she might have a broad range of knowledge and skills, they actually spend very little time in direct control of the aircraft, thanks to autopilot.
Drawing inspiration from science-fiction, Bailey thinks the most accurate look at the workplace of the future could be the one seen in Star Trek. Forgetting super-advanced technologies like teleportation and faster than light travel, he suggested that the way humans leverage AI to augment their own experiences, rather than replacing the human crew of Federation vessels, could be what the workplaces of tomorrow will look like. Intuitive voice command systems that let staff ask the ship’s computer to perform complex calculations is something that inspired Amazon in the creation of its Alexa hardware. In other words, we’ll work alongside AI, not be replaced by it.
So, what does that do to jobs?
Whether you’re a ‘Trek fan or not though, the important takeaway from automation, Bailey says, is that it won’t mean an end to jobs. Not all jobs at least. While some will be more impacted than others, for the most part, he sees the workplace of the future being augmented, rather than one run by robots and AI.
Citing an example in his own life of being walked through a house extension in virtual reality by an architect, he suggested that “it’s not replacing the drawings or the architect, it’s augmenting it.” The same would be true of most jobs, he said.
“If it doesn’t replace enough of the common issues then it’s not cost effective and turns out that people are cheaper.”
“Similar to how we created machines to dig trenches but we still need people to run the trench diggers and figure out where they’re going to go,” he told Digital Trends. “I think we’ll see augmentation in retail where maybe going into the store the people that work there understand what you’re interested in and can point you in the right direction. [They can] help you understand what does and doesn’t fit or maybe there’s a computer that provides an image of what it looks like on because you don’t want to try it on.”
While Bailey does admit that there may one day come a time where robots and artificial intelligence can do the majority of jobs, he doesn’t see that happening any time soon. In many ways, he sees it as a case of cost and efficiency. While there are certainly jobs that artificial intelligence can do better than humans, they can rarely do everything better than a human, and even in some of those cases, it may remain cheaper to hire a person instead for the foreseeable future.
“Computers are really good at predictable [scenarios] and knowledge,” he said. “The things that we can’t predict or require intricate manual work that isn’t repetitive, there’s a cost with computers. That’s not scalable if it doesn’t replace enough of the common issues then it’s not cost effective and turns out that people are cheaper.”
But not everyone thinks like Bailey. There are entire sites devoted to calculating the chances of whether or not robots and automation will replace their jobs. According to sites like WillRobotsTakemyJob, food servers could be one of the first segments of society to be impacted by AI and automation. While that could mean just adjusting to augmentation more than most, it may mean contraction in the number of necessary employees in the long term.
On the other hand, the real-world application has supported a positive view of AI in the workplace. We’ve already seen it be implemented in certain restaurant locations, where robot assistants can flip burgers, or even craft them from scratch, but they work in tandem with human employees. Those people might not be doing the mundane task of burger flipping anymore, but they put a human face on the business, interact with customers, and continue to perform many of the necessary tasks that are still too complicated, or not cost efficient, for robots to take control of.
Targeted augmentation over generic automation
This industrial revolution could very well turn out to be be like the ones of the past. Instead of killing off human jobs, factory machinery meant people were employed in running and managing those machines, rather than performing the arduous jobs those machines could then do in their stead.
That could well be the same with smart assistants and AI. The long-haul driver may act more like a pilot and supervise their autonomous truck, rather than driving every moment of the journey themselves. They can still provide manual control for tricky situations that arise, and communicate with workers at either end of the journey, but they don’t have to do all of the tedious driving in between.
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