How humans can add value in an automated world

By Ramanan Ramakrishna, - Future WorkplaceProductivity

Automation – the artificial intelligence (AI)-powered buzzword everyone is talking about.

And with good reason. If we harness and develop it in the right way, it has the power to fundamentally transform the way we work and our whole society for the better.

Neither AI nor automation are anything new, of course. The concept of using neural networks to process data began way back in the 80s, and the manufacturing industry has been utilizing automation for a long time.

But the speed of computing we have today, combined with the sheer amount of data on offer, is the reason we’re now seeing a huge surge in the application of AI and automation in the workplace.

That said: there are certain tasks that simply can’t be automated. And indeed shouldn’t be. Not yet, at least.

And if we want to build an automated future that brings value to us – the human beings who created it in the first place – then we must make sure we apply it in the right way.

In this article, I’m going to explore where automation can help us most, where it isn’t so useful, and how we can ensure our workplaces are prepared for this new world that will soon be upon us.

The ever-needed human touch

To work out where AI and automation can be most useful, it helps to look at where they’re not so effective.

While industries involving lots of manual work or methodical tasks lend themselves well to the use of automation through AI, those that require a more ‘human’ touch do not.

Take social care, for example – there is currently no way to automate the level of empathy and compassion required to do that job.

Similarly, with education – you could perhaps use AI to help create better courses or mark exams, but you can’t automate the full role of a teacher and all the nuances and understanding that comes with it.

Besides the obvious lack of genuine emotion, there’s one very good reason automation can’t fully replace us based on the current capabilities of AI:

Human beings have the uncanny ability to look at two completely unrelated things and make a connection. We can think, ‘Oh, I’ve just realized this is happening because of that thing over there’ – even if we weren’t originally associating those two elements.

AI can’t do this. It can only process data from the sources we point it towards. And it will probably be many years before able to make those links like we do.

A new set of skills

One of the most common perceptions of automation is that it will cost us our jobs. That’s the headline-grabbing story we see time and time again.

But that perception doesn’t have to become reality, and as a society – private sector, academia and government – we have to do everything in our power to ensure it doesn’t.

That means looking at new skills – retraining and redeploying people so that they can add value where AI and automation can’t.

As I mentioned earlier, an AI can’t think about data in the same way we can. It can crunch the data and spot patterns much more quickly than us, providing valuable insight. But we still need human input to make sense of those insights.

In this way, AI aids us, rather than replaces us. It automates much of the manual work involved in sifting through datasets to find the significant information, from which point a human can take over and make a decision based on that information.

Ultimately it makes our lives easier and gives us some of our time back.

As AI develops, we may one day get to the point where it is able to make those decisions for us. But even then we would likely still need a human ‘approver’ to review each decision as it comes in.

Look back at the rise of big data several years ago. It created a huge number of jobs for data analysts and data scientists – people to make sense of all that new data being produced. We’ll see a similar trend as AI creates an increasing number of insights that need to be processed.

And that’s the key here: while there will inevitably be job losses in some areas, there will also be new ones created.

Aside from people responsible for monitoring the output of automated AI systems, there will also be a big push for programmers – people who can write the kind of applications we need to support this new automated workplace and the rapid changes that will come with it.

Then we’ll need AI modelers to tell these automated machines what assets they should draw upon and which patterns they should look for.

These are just some of the new requirements that could create jobs as the automation revolution takes off – others we simply won’t know we need until we get there.

But the point is this: if we think of automation as a way to aid our work, not replace us, we’ll be much more likely to see a positive impact on society rather than flat-out job losses.

A happier and more productive worker

I’ve talked about where automation is and isn’t valuable, and where we might see humans add value on top of it in the coming years.

But what about it’s overall ability to make us more valuable in the workplace? To make us more productive and efficient in our day-to-day roles.

Automation absolutely has this power.

By learning about our preferences in the workplace it could adjust little things in our day – increasing efficiencies here and cutting out unnecessary actions there to make our lives easier and free up our time to focus on valuable tasks.

And it could be built into every device you use, from your desktop to your mobile phone or smartwatch, creating an ecosystem of smart technology to improve the user experience and serve you: the employee.

In this way, AI could enable us to add value simply by taking the time-consuming or stressful tasks away from us.

Clearly that isn’t something to be afraid of.

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