KPMGVoice: A Virtual Assistant To Manage Time (And Space) | The Great Rewrite
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Everyone’s talking about artificial intelligence (“AI”). Most of the talk is wrong, misleading and often intended to frighten us about a future that’s unlikely to occur. AI will not steal our babies, hold us hostage for Bitcoins or start nuclear wars. But it will fundamentally change the labor market through the intelligent automation of many routine tasks individuals and companies perform all the time.
First, let’s acknowledge the lack of intelligence around artificial intelligence. Members of the United States Congress know little or nothing about the technology – which is worrisome on many levels, especially when we consider the technology’s inevitable impact on the US and global economies. Most CEOs – and even most CIOs and CTOs – also know very little about AI – though when surveyed list AI as one of the most important technologies of the 21st century. The judicial system has its head in the sand. The general population understands AI the way Hollywood dramatizes it, like the way it was exhibited in 1992 in Minority Report and 1999 in The Matrix and, more recently, in Her and HBO’s Westworld. Try this: go to a party and randomly ask people what they think about AI. I’ve done it several times and the wordcloud shows robotics, Alexa, Watson and Westworld, but nothing about machine learning, knowledge representation or neural networks. Or about the impact it will inevitably have.
Those who develop and sell AI understand the financial implications. Amazon, IBM, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, Intel and Baidu – among many others – are racing to sell vitamin pills and pain relievers – smart applications that can make money and save money. The CEOs, COOs, CIOs and CTOs are waiting impatiently to deploy applications that will save them time, effort and money – especially money they now spend on humans. They see AI as a cost manager and a profit center.
But for the first time, AI will displace lots of knowledge workers – well-educated professionals – especially in the financial and service communities. AI’s impact on the transportation and manufacturing industries will also accelerate. Lots of pundits talk about the industries most likely to be impacted by AI, but very few talk about the small number of humans who create the technology, how the technology will inevitably become just another black box appliance or how the transition to machines will be managed.
So what happens when displacement occurs? Hardly any of the pundits describe specific displacement management plans. This is the scary part of the story (not AI hostages or AI instigated Armageddon). How many industries and companies will know how – or even want – to manage displacement? Corporate HR departments will explode with complaints and lawsuits, and collapse under the weight of the exit packages they’ll be forced to give. Young and aging factory workers – and accountants, lawyers and doctors – will forget their purpose. Politicians will stare into the technology headlights – again – frozen by their own confusion and vested self-interests. Executives and shareholders will squeal with profitable delight. Universities will adjust their curricula or rapidly lose customers. Pain will pervade the corridors (but not the boardrooms) of the hard and soft industrial worlds, though this time the corridors will be wider and prettier than they’ve been in past displacement revolutions (because knowledge workers work in prettier places).
Transition – and displacement – will be the challenge.
This is the part of the story that deserves most of the attention, though very few analysts talk about what happens after displacement occurs. What happens to the lawyers, accountants, medical diagnosticians, manufacturers, supply chain managers and customer service representatives when they’re displaced? Where will they go? What will they do? Let’s call the question posed by Xavier Mesnard in the World Economic Forum:
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KPMGVoice: A Virtual Assistant To Manage Time (And Space) | The Great Rewrite
“The risk we are facing in the near future is mass unemployment for some categories of workers, combined with lack of skills in other categories – and the political and social implications of such imbalances. Will companies, individual governments and society at large (including educational systems and social safety nets) be able to adapt quickly enough to this new paradigm and create an environment in which all can contribute?”
Let me answer the question with an emphatic “no.” In a time when we cannot agree about healthcare, taxes, war, climate change or even evolution, there will be endless debates about what’s actually happening and who’s to blame, instead of what should be done to re-educate, re-train and re-deploy displaced humans. The assumption will be – as it always is – that we have time to think all this through (or ignore it for as long as we can), perhaps even as much time as it took cars to totally replace horse and buggies, or about a quarter of a century. But this time displacement will be much faster and brutal than it’s been in the past. There won’t be anywhere near as much time as there’s been during past industrial revolutions because this revolution is digital and therefore, by definition, pervasive and exponential. We’re already digitally connected, so displacement has an infrastructure in place, which is an unprecedented revolutionary reality (note that the adoption of automobiles was constrained by the lack of highways infrastructure). One example illustrates the point: self-driving vehicles will be widely deployed in five to seven years – not decades from now. The enabling digital technologies that locate, direct and power autonomous vehicles are in place, which will accelerate adoption and displacement. What will happen to the operators of these vehicles and those who enable the entire vehicle and transportation supply chain?
The emerging crisis is not about inevitable displacement but about reaction and replacement policy.
Since corporations will largely benefit from displacement (in the same way they benefited from cheaper global labor markets), governments will be expected to intervene at some level. But given how clueless government already is, and how slowly it moves even when it’s informed and committed, the prospects for effective displacement management are dismal. It may be that we’re focusing on the wrong problem – and the wrong problem-solvers. It may be that completely unpredictable events will define displacement management policy. So how do we manage displacement?
We have less than a decade to figure all this out, which is a problem given the current level of intelligence about artificial intelligence. There’s a lot of education and analysis necessary to minimize transitional and displacement damage and optimize another global transition. The backdrop is complicated by a variety of other competing priorities. The first step is awareness.
Who owns this?
AI has the potential to quickly displace huge numbers of hard and soft skills. We need some real intelligence to avoid a rocky process that could have major social, economic and political consequences. Are there members of the US Congress willing to launch a national discussion? Are there editors of major media willing to raise a red flag? Would it make sense to seek a global agreement? (CNN has time to analyze the power of music and meals. Maybe it could do a series on AI.)
The major social platforms – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. – should proactively encourage discussions about the displacements about to occur. This is clearly a multidisciplinary problem. Colleges and universities should focus on the implications of displacement; the government and foundations should fund research in the area. Corporations should develop displacement management plans.
Who wants to lead this?