What impact will artificial intelligence (AI) have on the workforce? Will smart machines really replace a large number of people in a variety of jobs?
These questions have been on the minds of a lot of people of late -- especially as AI becomes even more advanced. Clearly the technology will take away the need for some functions that are now performed by humans. But there's good reason to believe that AI will actually create a lot of new jobs as well -- at least in some areas of the economy.
"For information workers, the near-term opportunity is to leverage machine learning and natural language processing to make sense of a disconnected and cacophonic set of information sources, so people can focus on what matters most to them," said David Lavenda, vice president of product strategy at mobile-enterprise collaboration company Harmon.ie, who does academic research on information overload in organizations.
AI automation now is best geared toward specific, highly-contextual tasks, Lavenda said. "In the consumer world, we are seeing things like customer service bots," he said. "But information workers typically operate in a broad range of tasks and responsibilities. Without a definite context, AI will struggle to make decisions independently."
For example, IBM is focusing Watson's AI capabilities on highly-contextual business cases such as evaluating health studies and helping doctors make decisions.
Still, organizations and individuals need to prepare for the growing role of AI in the workplace.
"The trick is to make it easier for workers to consume the increasing amount of disconnected information, not make them learn new skills," Lavenda said. "People want to focus on the business, not on learning new technology. If anything, the promise of AI is that people won't have to know more IT skills to be effective."
The focus on AI in the enterprise should be on making workers' lives simpler, not more difficult, Lavenda said. "People are already inundated by continuous new software and gadgets," he said. "They just can't keep up. The future lies in hiding complexity, not introducing new complexity."
Some industries are feeling the impact of AI sooner than others. For instance, healthcare is already seeing an impact from IBM's AI-based Watson technology, Lavenda said. "Since AI is a horizontal technology, it will appear first in industries where suppliers identify key use cases," he said.
One promising use case Lavenda cites is helping salespeople close more business by connecting disconnected information from sources such as Salesforce, Zendesk, SharePoint, email, Yammer, and Chatter into one coherent picture of what's happening with their business. "Without having to learn any new skills or install new apps, AI-based solutions can present this information in a coherent fashion right within email or within a document window, so that salespeople can focus on closing business, not using technology," he said.
Long term, there is no doubt that AI will impact jobs. "Like in the past, all new technology displaces professions," Lavenda said. "We don't have many telegraph or telephone operators today, to say nothing of keypunch data entry clerks. Yet new technologies bring new opportunities, and at least so far the new technologies increase the number of job opportunities, not lessen them."
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