What was considered science fiction a few years ago is fast becoming present day reality. Smartwatches, augmented reality glasses, virtual assistants that can understand speech . . . who would’ve thought? And now we are on the verge of driverless cars, which Nissan announced it will have on the roads by 2020. Not long ago experts assumed that these capabilities would only emerge in the distant future. However, major new advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning in recent years have transformed basic assumptions about what computers can and cannot do.
Two MIT experts argue that we’re on the verge of a Second Machine Age in which digital technologies are redefining and reinventing our lives and economy and our very notions of work, progress, and prosperty. Of course, the biggest thing on everyone’s mind has to do with the future of our jobs: will we be outsourced by intelligent machines that can do the work faster, more accurately, and cheaper?
The number of articles appearing on this topic are becoming more frequent and the statistics being floated are rather staggering. One study suggests that nearly half of U.S. jobs may be automated in the next 20 years. The authors of that research note the following:
The authors believe this takeover will happen in two stages. First, computers will start replacing people in especially vulnerable fields like transportation/logistics, production labor, and administrative support. Jobs in services, sales, and construction may also be lost in this first stage. Then, the rate of replacement will slow down due to bottlenecks in harder-to-automate fields such engineering. This “technological plateau” will be followed by a second wave of computerization, dependent upon the development of good artificial intelligence. This could next put jobs in management, science and engineering, and the arts at risk.
Now there are obviously a lot of uncertainties on how this automation will exactly take place. But based on the rapid acceleration that we’ve seen in key technologies such as mobile, cloud, and information over the past 5 years, it can be said with a fair amount of certainty that lower-skilled jobs will be the ones that become automated first in the years ahead.
Some examples of where we’re already seeing disruption in the job market are bank tellers, cashiers, receptionists, travel agents, and telephone operators. ATMs are doing a pretty good job of taking care of most banking needs, and self-checkouts in grocery stores are more and more ubiquitous. Virtual assistants today are also becoming very commonplace as artificial intelligence and speech recognition technology are helping to automate tasks and providing support and answering questions faster and more efficiently than humans.
So we get the fact that digital technologies are transforming our lives on multiple levels, but what do we really mean by machines replacing jobs? Are we talking about robots or what? One of the biggest buzz words in the digital technologies market right now are smart machines. Smart machines are systems trained to employ artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms that are able to make decisions and solve problems without human intervention, or that can “sense, predict, infer and, in some ways, think.” Examples of these systems are increasingly evident: contextually aware devices such as smartphones that allow user information to influence computer behavior, intelligent personal assistants, smart advisors (such as IBM Watson), advanced global industrial systems, and autonomous vehicles such as driverless cars.
Several potentially scary trends related to job automation should be cause for concern. Research shows that many CEOs are underestimating the systemic and deep impact that smart machines will have through 2020, as well as the potential for them to replace millions of middle-class jobs in the decades to come. Gartner is even saying that “the smart machine era will be the most disruptive in the history of IT.” The tech research company is also currently projecting that 2015 is a benchmark year, or the time when companies need to start introducing policies and programs for a “digital workforce” in order to stay in the top quartile of productivity by 2020.
Business owners and leaders will need to be on top of their game when it comes to understanding these trends. And smart machines will have to be matched by ‘smart businesses’ that know how to compete and stay innovative in the future when digital technologies and automation become even more ubiquitous and start to dominate the workplace.
In the next part of this series we’ll outline some clear strategies that business leaders and employees should start to take today in order to keep one step ahead of the machines.