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Straight Talk Technology

Ovum view

There is much talk today of the ethical use of artificial intelligence. In Ovum's opinion, this is a good thing. However, apart from debate usually found at the philosophical end of the spectrum, the impact that AI capabilities have on people’s work is often missing. We are often keen to talk about the labor saved, but rarely give much time to how that saved labor is to be redeployed. The risk of technological unemployment is on the rise and AI, as a technology, can replace brains as well as muscle.

Labor displacement is happening today and will only accelerate

Recently we were listening to a speaker discussing the application of automation to a process in a large organization, powered by its use of AI technologies. The speaker carefully explained that this process was time-consuming and repetitive, but necessary. Describing the solution that had been successfully rolled out, the speaker highlighted that this automation had saved a large sum of money, primarily by reducing the number of people required to manage the process. We were waiting for the value-add punchline, something along the lines of, “… and we went on to retrain those employees to do more valuable and engaging work that added value to them and therefore the business.” The punchline never arrived.

There are two problems here. First, the socio-economic change being powered by technology (not just AI) is not in the distant future or even medium term, it is happening now. Second, the problem of technological unemployment bristles with new AI-powered possibilities for putting people out of work, while radically concentrating wealth in the hands of a very small number limiting the chances of new jobs/job types, services, and products rebalancing the economy. AI is in Ovum's view different to previous economic shifts such as the industrial revolution because it is increasingly able to replace “white collar” work as well as more well-paid "middle-class" jobs. Spend just five minutes on Google (other search engines are available) to find information about the medical applications of AI for diagnoses, or the applications of it to legal work, for example. Yes, doctors and lawyers can and will be slowly replaced by machines; we may even come to trust their digital decisions more than we do human judgement.

What to do? In the first instance, we believe it is important for organizations adopting AI-powered capabilities based on labor-saving business cases to specifically address how they will upskill and redeploy the employees affected. The near-term opportunities for AI augmentation of people, helping them do more, better, and more engaging work are high: invest in them to achieve both cost savings and the additive value of higher skill work. For the longer term, we make this call to all practitioners, advisers, observers, and interested parties in the field of AI. Let us start the conversation now about how we address the ever-extending reach of AI economic disruption. Asserting that the debate is so distant as to be philosophical, or optimistically arguing that we cannot yet imagine what will replace all that work, are demonstrably weak responses.

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