My experience in business process automation has given me firsthand exposure to the kind of job displacement that’s possible as new technologies emerge. As I (and others) have said, we’re in the midst of another industrial revolution, and things will be different this time around.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, machines heavily impacted manual labor, but this time, knowledge workers will be more directly affected. Today’s tech is already smart enough to take on more cognitive tasks, and it’s only going to get smarter. However, this doesn’t mean human workers will become obsolete. Companies just need to put employees to work in new ways — ways business and tech leaders might not expect.
The New Wave of Automation Innovation
Artificial intelligence (AI) has come a long way. Machines can now summarize writing and even construct entire articles. They can’t exactly replicate profound literature, but they do more than string a list of words together. Both The New York Timesand Washington Post have generated content using automation, and some media outlets are even using AI to explore creative writing. Likewise, adaptive AI systems can understand human speech and provide detailed answers to complex questions. This often requires the ability for machines to sift through large amounts of data for relevant information.
New AI machines can also determine the causes of illness as effectively — or even more effectively — than physicians. In 2018, physicians in Beijing competed against AI system BioMind to diagnose brain tumors and predict hematoma expansions. BioMind finished diagnosing 225 potential cases in about 15 minutes with 87% accuracy. A team of 15 doctors from top Chinese hospitals finished in 30 minutes with only a 66% success rate.
What Cognitive AI Means for the Workforce
Humans still have an edge on machines in certain higher-level cognitive work — at least for now.
Every industry still needs critical thinkers with problem-solving capabilities. As we move forward, businesses will continue to demand more IT system architects and security experts to ensure machines work properly and manage data correctly. Additionally, because many customers still prefer speaking to humans over chatbots, findings by McKinsey & Company project future demand for social skills to increase by 26% in the United States — something machines aren’t likely to master anytime soon.
Still, as the above examples show, the potential for AI-powered automation is widespread. With automation expanding quickly into the realm of knowledge work, the future of the human job landscape is increasingly uncertain. Tech’s emulation of human cognition continues to make human labor less cost-effective by comparison. According to at least one estimation, automation could replace nearly half of all jobs in the next few decades. History has shown us how this can happen, but the industrial revolutions of the past shifted workers away from manual trades toward more cognitively-demanding work. This next wave will likely have the opposite effect. As AI takes on more knowledge work, workers will be pushed into more manual pursuits, like those in the service industry. In fact, this trend is already taking shape: 43% of recent college graduates are underemployed, meaning they have jobs that don’t require a degree.
These are all considerations that today’s business leaders (and future employees) consider as they prepare for the business world of tomorrow. As cognitive AI continues to develop, skills that are in demand are likely to change and new skills gaps are likely to emerge. The following strategies will help you take stock of your business needs before the full effects of this advanced tech manifest.
- Discuss capabilities with your tech team. Considering that data handling will likely be a major component of the future of automation, you’ll want to discuss your data capabilities with your CTO and IT management group. The first step is knowing who you’ll need to bring onto your team. For instance, data scientists are rapidly becoming more necessary. While automation platforms crunch numbers, data scientists are still required to manage those systems and adjust software to address changing needs. Data scientists can also identify gaps in data storage space and transmission architecture or assist with integrations between systems and languages. They’ll continue to be valuable in these areas, which well-functioning automation heavily depends on.
- Focus on social, emotional, analytical and strategic skills. It’s true today — and will continue to be in the future — that human employees tend to be more valuable when they have high social and emotional intelligence. This is especially true of effective managers, sales team members, client and customer relationship specialists and just about everyone in between. Some other areas that will have reliably stable value are creative ideation, problem-solving, strategic thinking and business development. Keep this set of defining human characteristics in mind when hiring. Many of these “soft” skills will always be in demand, and humans should continue to have an edge in these areas for the foreseeable future.
- Search for forward thinkers. Arguably, the most important investment you can make in emerging technology has nothing to do with the technology itself — but in those excited about its trajectory. Forward-thinking hires who aren’t afraid of automation and who want to embrace its potential immediately are an asset for any company. Gear your interview questions toward AI’s future. Be as specific as possible to gauge understanding of current AI, especially when hiring for IT director-type positions. Once you have those positions locked down, you can let new hires decide who to bring on to best round out the team. The last thing you want is for those in tech-facing leadership positions to be ignorant of what’s to come.
When it comes to quickly advancing technology, simply going along with a trend once it’s developed won’t lead to success. You have to stay ahead of it. Both employers and future employees need to be thinking about the evolution of automation and what it will mean for business. Technology advances exponentially, so it won’t be long before speculation becomes reality. Where will you be standing when that happens?
This article was originally published on July 26th, 2019 on Forbes
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