The last few centuries have seen the workplace transform several times — first by machinery during the Industrial Revolution, then by computers and the advent of the internet. Those changes may have felt sudden at the time, but they’ll seem gradual compared to the next few years, as artificial intelligence becomes more vital to workplaces.
We’re living through the most rapid workplace changes in history, argue the AARP’s Debra Whitman and Heather McGowan, a future-of-work strategist, in a blog post published on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Forum. According to Whitman and McGowan, technology is transforming our jobs, from small tasks to the larger structure of companies. Business models, workforce hierarchies and job roles are all adapting in response.
Three distinct eras have driven the changing nature of work: The First Industrial Revolution, with the rise of the steam engine, lasted from about 1760 to 1830; the Second Industrial Revolution, marked by electrification and mass manufacturing, spanned the late-19th century to about 1914; and the Third Industrial Revolution, exemplified by computerization and the automation of manufacturing, began in the 1950s.
We’re quite possibly on the verge of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, one which revolves around algorithms, automation and, especially, AI.
What does AI do best? Because the technology is constantly changing, it’s hard to say. But so far AI has excelled at pattern recognition. With the ability to scan a huge amount of data faster than humans can, AI can recognize patterns in data that we might miss, and it can then use those patterns to make predictions.
“AI will be as central to the white-collar office environment as robotics has been to the production economy,” Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, told Axios. He added that it will “fundamentally change what work is and what humans do.”
This isn’t limited to certain industries or job levels. A recent study by a Stanford University economist cross-referenced keywords in AI patents with keywords in job descriptions. His research predicts that many different tasks currently performed by humans — from operating power plants to diagnosing diseases — are vulnerable to being taken over by AI. The more information a worker processes, the more likely it is that an AI could do the same job better: Lab technicians, optometrists and chemical engineers were among the professions whose jobs were most exposed.
Both old and young workers will be affected by this shift. As jobs become more technical, employer bias against older workers grows. At the same time, many of the jobs AI will eliminate are entry-level positions, making it harder for young workers to break into their chosen industries. Taken together, some experts predict a wave of automation that may eliminate 14.7 million jobs in coming years.
When AI integration is viewed this way, it can sound alarming. “With each technological leap forward, there is a parallel rise in fear that humanity will somehow be displaced,” wrote Google’s Ben Jones. But in the end, he argues, AI is only a tool: “There’s much more to be gained by embracing machine learning as an accelerant for our creative powers.”
Tech analyst Benedict Evans envisions AI as being like an unlimited number of interns who can search through data for you — or just one intern who is very, very fast.
AI can do the legwork, but the real creative thought still has to come from the human expert deploying it. So we’ll need to maximize creativity in our workers and teach them how to use AIs to further their own visions.
As AARP’s Whitman and McGowan wrote, the workplace of the future will depend on “hard-to-codify abilities, traits and mind-sets like empathy, social and emotional intelligence, judgment, design mind-set, sense-making, collaboration and communication.”
Here’s an example of how human creativity and AI can work together: Not long ago, Wired magazine covered how AI is being used to “generate” novels, with the headline “Text-Savvy AI Is Here to Write Fiction.”
It was the latest in a series of similar news stories. Every few years articles are published hinting that AI might replace human writers. “New AI Fake Text Generator May Be Too Dangerous To Release” declared a headline last year in The Guardian.
But despite those sensational headlines, prose produced by an AI actually isn’t that good — and certainly not comparable to a human author’s. In fact, the writers profiled in the Wired article weren’t computers — they were human. By itself, reporter Gregory Barber wrote, AI “can’t write a novel; not even the semblance, if you’re thinking Austen or Franzen. It can barely get out a sentence before losing the thread.”
Instead, clever creatives are using AI as a supplemental tool to create work according to the parameters they choose. The AI is just a more sophisticated version of creativity constraint games used by writers as far back as the French Oulipo collective. It could be argued that an AI functions less like a creator and more like the simple “story cubes” — dice with random images printed on each side — that some people use for inspiration.
One writer created a code to analyze the trickiest passages of Thomas Beckett’s novel “Watt” and generated a novel-length manuscript based on them (titled, naturally, “Megawatt”). Another instructed his AI intern to search for phrases from online dream diaries, which he repurposed for his novel.
Some of these works couldn’t have been created without AI. But just as importantly, they couldn’t have been created without the conceptualization and impetus of a human mind.
There’s no reason why human workers can’t use AI in the same way; that is, to allow people access to work that’s more creative and interesting, and assign AI the repetitive, high-volume data-processing tasks that it can perform so easily.
In order to keep work human — and to keep human jobs available — we’ll have to design educational systems that prize the kind of experience, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking skills only humans can bring to the job.