AI Versus Me

‘Humans Need Not Apply’ – a video that recently went viral describes the future of intelligent machines and how they will disrupt human employability. (https://youtu.be/7Pq-S557XQU)

Famous inventor and futurist, Ray Kurzweil, predicts that exponential increase in computing power will see artificial intelligence (AI) surpassing human intelligence in 2045. He describes this as the ‘Technological Singularity’, because by then, Kurzweil postulates, self-improving machines will think, act and communicate so quickly that normal humans will not even comprehend what is going on, and this will forever change the course of human history.

The rate at which machines are replacing jobs that require physical labour has gone up significantly since the Industrial Revolution. Automation and mechanization has led to replacement of humans with machines – number of people employed in agriculture has dropped drastically (while farm production has increased), robots now work on the assembly line, vending machines are replacing shopkeepers, ATMs have replaced bank tellers, you find self-check-in kiosks at airports, tele-marketing is becoming automated, at home we use vacuum cleaners and dishwashers instead of employing domestic help and so forth.

As machines replaced human labour, the complexion of the economy changed and knowledge in a domain became the key ingredient for employability in a services-dominated economy. An engineering, accountancy, or medical degree almost guaranteed lifelong employment.

Now intelligent machines are replacing jobs that were earlier available to humans because we had mental or cognitive abilities that the machines lacked. As this is happening, many 20th century jobs are disappearing. You now buy an airline ticket from a website bypassing the travel agent (disintermediation), machine-based diagnostics is lowering the employment potential in fields like radiology (big-data analysis), banks are closing branches as banking moves online, with more and more banks toying with the idea that their future branches will only offer life stage and life style financial consultancy.

In this scenario, closer than we think, what we’ll see is ‘academic inflation’, not necessarily in the form of degrees but in the ability to have and exhibit deep knowledge and profound understanding in a domain. Only those who can do that will be ‘employable’.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) – the ability of machines to analyse, reason and learn is once again changing the complexion of the global economy. And, Artificial General Intelligence, that is a machine capable of performing any intellectual task a human being can, which may well become a reality in the next few decades, is going to change it even more dramatically.

What technology does is that it makes it possible for fewer humans to do the same amount of work. This leads to a widening income gap between those who can thrive in a technology driven world and those who can’t. A person develops an app that can do your taxes and that person becomes a millionaire while thousands of tax consultants become unemployed. Thus, technology can skew the income distribution – what economists call a ‘winner-takes-all-market’. You need to make sure you have the right skills so that you don’t end up a tech-created have-not.

The more important question here is – will an intelligent machine replace you, or will it amplify you?

As in the past, the answer will depend on what skills and competencies you learn. Most experts agree that creativity, empathy, compassion, leadership, diplomacy, adaptability, focus, emotional maturity, mentoring, nurturing, self-directed learning, deep thinking, ability to solve complex problems, invention and entrepreneurship are some skills and competencies that will be much sought after in the age of intelligent machines. In addition, the ability to make the most of the intelligent machines themselves will be essential to enhance both the quality and scale of what you do.

For example, highly competent artisans, writers, musicians, life coaches, personal trainers and nurses will have a job even in the age of intelligent machines (there will be intense competition, and hence the high competence as an imperative). However, to enhance the quality and to scale their businesses, these professionals will need to know how to best deploy intelligent machines in their vocation.

And, those who can imagine new products, new services and new industries, then have the ability to commercialize their idea will definitely flourish in the fast approaching future. Think about it – before Airbnb and Facebook, did you ever think you needed such services? And now we can’t imagine life without them.

Uber offers employment possibility to millions but what impact will driverless cars have on Uber? If you can crack such problems, your future is secure!

To flourish in the emerging future, you should not think of the argument as the conundrum of ‘AI vs Me’ but rather the empowering possibility of ‘AI and Me’.