Artificial Intelligence (AI), is a societal buzzword that now crosses every area of human experience. Whether it is our leisure activities, our medical interventions, our banking transactions or our shopping pursuits, AI is now pivotal to the way in which we conduct our personal lives and we are seeing that advances in AI are affecting business. This phenomenon has not emerged haphazardly, but is a trajectory that has ensued from the benefits that business has enjoyed from its use, and one that now every area of commerce needs to employ, and maintain, in order to enjoy any success.
According to IBM, 65 percent of all organisations will have accelerated the use of digital technologies by 2022 and more than 85 percent of advanced adopters are reducing operating costs. Artificial Intelligence is here to stay.
While sci-fi representations of AI have regularly portrayed a dystopian view of robotics dominating the planet, making human beings obsolete if not defunct, business now recognises that embracing this technological advancement can not only boost profit margins, but can also enhance the workplace environment and not only attract, but also help retain workers. In fact, expertise in AI is currently one of the most in-demand areas of expertise for job seekers.
Every corner of the economy, whether it is a small online company, multinational businesses or even governments are powered by data driven technologies, or AI. Its use has accelerated enormously to the point that statistics from Gartner show that it has grown by 270 percent in the last four years.
In essence, AI is a term that refers to computer technology that is able to perform tasks and solve problems, based on reason and data, that until now we have only associated with human intelligence. Computers can generate algorithms from the data collated and even learn from past processes, and it is this machine learning that is the potent element.
Although this ability to learn suggests that AI could make human beings obsolete, a recent MIT research paper by Malone, Rus and Laubacher, Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Work, predicts that advancements in AI will not only fuel business and industry but will actually generate new areas of growth and hence new jobs.
Fortunately, computers have by their very nature, very specialised or targeted intelligence, whereas human beings possess a more generalised intelligence making them more robustly adaptable to a broad range of tasks. Human judgment will always be relevant. Human beings will not be usurped by AI.
There is also the question of energy consumption with AI, which at the current time, with climate change targets, is central to any business plan. The reliance on data-driven technologies can require enormous processing power. Malone, Rus and Labaucher cite a case where it cost $4.6m in electricity charges alone to run the servers developing a language recognition model.
This realisation makes it clear again that AI is very unlikely to replace human beings in the workplace and that human intelligence used in collaboration with AI is the preferred and most economic solution.
However, although we can be reassured in many ways that AI will not replace human beings but enhance the workplace and generate jobs, it is also worth pausing to recognise the role AI actually now has on the hiring process itself.
A LinkedIn report says that 23 hours was the average time required to find a suitable job candidate by a human being – but 75% of CVs can be rejected by a computer generated algorithm, releasing recruiters from time consuming hunts for appropriate candidates. AI is certainly making the hiring process simpler for HR managers, although there are concerns that AI in this arena could enable prejudice and bias leading to potential law suits.
Pros and Cons
However, the advantages of AI across various workplaces currently outweigh the disadvantages.
In the world of medicine, the use of AI, particularly in a Covid-19 backdrop, has been shown to have profound implications. Robust and extensive data can be used to create predictive models related to the health of the nation, and some AI diagnostic tools have even proved to be more useful than doctors, in some coronary and cancer patients in particular.
The Covid-19 pandemic has not only stalled global economies, but has also been pivotal in the surge in the deployment of AI technologies. E-commerce is one sector that has particularly benefitted. With populations negotiating lockdowns, not only did working lives have to adapt but their personal lives, in regards to their consumption also changed. E-commerce will be even more central in every sector of industry going forward and this will be driven by AI. Chat-bots, shopper personalisation, warehouse and inventory automation will be increasingly pivotal to any business model.
This socio-economic background is also profoundly impacting AI in the world of transportation. Not only does the prospect of autonomous vehicles and transportation impact on business and marketing, but it also affects the nature of jobs available to the workforce in the automobile sector as well as the manufacturing industries.
Stanford scholar Clifton B. Parker explains this phenomenon – ‘In tomorrow’s workplace, many routine jobs now performed by workers will increasingly be assumed by machines, leaving more complicated tasks to humans who see the big picture and possess interpersonal skills’
He argues that society will benefit from increased productivity and lower costs with increased use of artificial intelligence, and while some manual roles will be lost in the workplace, fields are emerging where workers learn to co-ordinate with machines in new positions, whether at professional or entry level.
Society benefits from AI
For this reason Parker suggests that education and training have never been so important in this transitioning workplace. In the same way that 19th century entrepreneurs had to educate and convince workers that automated weaving was beneficial to their working conditions, so the 21st century entrepreneur has to implement the correct training procedures to convince workers that AI can benefit them too.
Parker also points out that while finance is of course an important factor in retaining employees, a sense of self-worth is just as important. Educating workers into new roles with new technology at the heart is a real contributor to making the employee feeling valued and consequently loyal. With the rapid pace of change that AI is instigating, training, it seems, will become a really basic, but essential part of any workplace dynamic.
In a recent study, IBM reports that AI adoption and business performance are inescapably linked. Organisations report, on average, a 6.3 percent increase in business unit revenue directly attributable to their AI initiatives, with a 5 percent median rise.
Whether a renewable energy company like Denmark’s Energinet, London’s Cycle Hire, Petrosoft fuel retailers or the Standard Bank of South Africa, AI is the central cog to the business wheel. From sole traders, to governments, no-one can escape the reach and power of AI.
There is a dark side to this progression. While industry and business leaders, government and the general public adapt to the changes that AI is bringing about, it is Cybersecurity that has risen to the forefront of debate.
According to Purplesec, cyber attacks rose by 600 percent during 2020, when the pandemic was at its height, emphasising the absolute need for advances in secure technologies, especially in finance.
AI can harness vital data to drive economies, but it is critical that tools are consistently developed and workforces educated to counter these advances in the area of cybersecurity.
The road ahead may at times be complex and fast paced, but the key to charting this new technological road is to embrace education and learning for all who traverse it. It is safe to say that advances in AI are affecting business and therefore the workplace is changing, but this is not inevitably leading to a dystopia – businesses, employees and society as a whole should benefit from this trajectory.