Recently, a friend of mine was marveling at how easy it was to do his taxes. He’d decided to test drive one of the popular online tax processing platforms. Once he’d set up the software and entered the relevant data, “it basically imported everything it needed, and then offered to submit the return.” The rub: This friend is a retired accountant. Was he at all worried, I gently inquired, about these sorts of programs making his profession obsolete?
“Not really,” he replied after a pensive pause. “Maybe it means fewer customers walking in off the street, but there’s a lot of professional or insider knowledge that this software can’t replicate, expertise that still holds a lot of value to people and businesses. I just think, at the end of the day, this makes everyone’s lives, accountants included, a lot easier.”
AI in the consumer marketplace
That sentiment — making everyone’s lives easier — is to me the ideal around which AI development revolves. After decades of stories about conscious machines run amok and destroying humanity, the new fear surrounding AI seems to be the various ways in which it could potentially disrupt the workforce. We’ve gone from paranoia about murderous computers to concern that computers will swoop in and steal our jobs.
Undoubtedly, technological development is moving at an incredible pace. It’s almost like we woke up to discover devices are suddenly integrated into every nook and cranny of our lives. For example, AI powers many of the functions of the computer on which I am writing this article (correcting my spelling, grammar, and formatting as I go); it also powers the smartphone to my side and my smart fridge that regulates its own temperature. Ray Kurzweil, one of the most fascinating thinkers of our day, proposed that our machines will soon be so advanced that we’ll have no choice but to merge with them. But maybe we already have. I could probably get by without my smart fridge, but I know that my business depends upon AI. I’m not worried about AI taking away my job, because I wouldn’t have my job without it.
Industrial dependence on AI
Many industries are already so dependent on AI that it is not only integral to their continued success, but to their very existence. This is true of digital and physical fields alike. AI is already embedded in most retail and marketing sectors: streamlining website design, tailoring purchases based on constantly updated customer profiles, conducting real-time inventory and stock oversight, processing payments, automating and tracking delivery, and more. Without this “intelligence,” the burden on companies to maintain such features and procedures — designed to optimize both business efficiency and consumer experience — would be wholly unmanageable.
For example, Amazon now utilizes intelligent, automated warehouse shelving that brings products to workers using the most efficient route and rearranges inventory during the night to prioritize high-demand products. AI has even become indispensable on assembly lines. Not only do manufacturers rely on chains of sophisticated robots to help build a whole range of goods and materials of all shapes and sizes, but they also increasingly depend on AI to help identify and diagnose problems within those lines.
How our reliance on AI affects the workforce
No one denies that AI will reshape the employment landscape — such shifts, of course, are always underway in any industrialized economy. As we increasingly integrate AI into various sectors and businesses, many positions will change, or consolidate, or be rendered unnecessary. But as this hybridization of the workforce unfolds, AI will also create many new positions and opportunities: innovative designers and developers to create and refine the AI components of any given industry; managers to oversee them; and a workforce newly trained to operate and improve them.
And though it may sound counterintuitive, companies can even put AI in service of those in the employment market. The Globe And Mail recently profiled the Toronto-based Employment Pathway Platform (EPP), described as “an AI-powered tool that will put the power of big data and machine learning to work for job seekers.” EPP harnesses one of AI’s primary powers — the ability to sift through and process data and variables at an unimaginable scale — to match job seekers with prospective employers. EPP is designed to not only evaluate the job market as it exists today but to analyze trends that predict where different industries might be headed tomorrow. By applying AI-powered predictive algorithms, EPP has the potential to strip away the stress and guesswork out of hunting for a job.
When it comes right down to it, we’re talking about a tool. In this context, I think we can all agree that Michelangelo was more than a paintbrush, Stanley Kubrick was more than a camera, and Steve Jobs was more than a computer. Our tools exist so that we can create opportunity, value, and (every once in a while) something truly incredible. With AI in our workshops, the possibilities are virtually limitless.
Nav Dhunay is the founder and CEO of Imaginea.Ai, a platform that democratizes artificial intelligence and aims to put it in the hands of every organization across the globe.