If you're reading the tech news these days it may seems that the industry is rapidly moving toward a robot-centric dystopia lifted from a Stephen King novel. There is a reason it's called "science fiction." Not that AI, machines, and robots don't have a place in our future. Practically speaking, we are a far cry from an autonomous office or completely driverless trucking.
Popular questions such as "will artificial intelligence be a massive, job-destroying shock to our economy?" Or "can AI be implemented sustainably?" are becoming more salient every day. However, it's possible that they have created a false dichotomy for many of us, particularly business owners. Job displacement may be an inevitable reality, but AI also gives people the freedom to exercise their creativity and industriousness in entirely new ways.
In a recent conversation with my friend Matt Ehrlichman, who launched Porch in 2013 to focus specifically on being the de facto, on-demand "partner for the home," he acknowledged the conundrum automation has caused for those who are attempting to predict the future of work: "On one end, AI enables things that weren't possible and creates massive opportunities for entrepreneurs to reshape entire markets. Look how ridesharing has changed transportation, and restaurant review sites have affected the way we eat out. We are essentially in the middle of a massive transformation that seems to be eliminating old skill sets in exchange for new ones. On the other end, we still need skilled workers who can perform specialized tasks only humans can complete, like replacing a roof or installing a television. It's how we integrate technology with the humans that will enable economic growth and job stability."
Pessimists, optimists, and everyone in between will continue to debate these points as AI becomes a larger and larger part of our lives. In the meantime, it's important take a look at how AI is already being used by companies and what the people at those companies have to say about it. By doing so, we won't just learn about the practical applications of a rapidly emerging (and potentially paradigm-shifting) technology - we'll also glimpse the ways in which it could be used in the future and what effects it's likely to have.
AI takes tasks, not jobs
Tim Harford is an economist and author whose most recent book, "Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy," examines the colossal economic impact of innovations ranging from the plow to the iPhone. As he puts it, he decided that "a history of technology would be a great way to talk about economic forces and economic change."
One of the points Harford emphasizes is the fact that "we underestimate how much successful inventions require us to change." He uses the example of driverless vehicles, which wouldn't be possible without AI: "I feel that today we're not fully grasping what something like autonomous vehicles might do and how they might change the shape of our cities."
And this development won't just change the shape of our cities - it will also have a dramatic effect on the contours of our economy. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, around one in nine American workers could be affected by the introduction of autonomous vehicles, particularly the workers for whom driving is a primary activity. There are 3.8 million people who fit into this category, and the Department of Commerce reports that they're "predominately male, older, less educated, and compensated less than the typical worker." Workers like these are especially vulnerable to the structural changes that AI is likely to bring.
Still, Harford isn't a pessimist about AI: "We think AI will take our jobs, and I think that's a misleading formulation. Technology doesn't take jobs; technology takes tasks." While this may be true over the long run, Harford's work also reminds us to be prepared for the consequences - both good and bad - of a greater reliance on AI.
Putting AI to work alongside humans
From curating online content to providing brands with invaluable data about the effectiveness of their marketing initiatives, AI is a tool that companies are already using in countless ways.
Analisa Goodin is the founder and CEO of Catch&Release, a company that provides its clients with licensed content from all over the Internet. This dramatically reduces production costs by connecting companies with a vast range of content that can be used without fear of infringing on the owners' rights. As Goodin puts it: "The Internet is unlimited, but unlicensed" - it provides a huge reservoir of low-cost material that brands are becoming much more interested in using.
Goodin explains that C&R uses "a mix of AI and human intelligence we call Curation Intelligence to identify content for brands to use." She also points out how unique this curation model is: "There has never been a product that leverages the open web that turns people into suppliers of content for brands." In other words, C&R is demonstrating how AI can help people with limited resources and small platforms do business with major brands. This is a solid reminder that, while AI may make certain jobs redundant, it can also create new outlets for productive activity.
As the CTO and co-founder of AirPR Software, Raj Sathyamurthi uses AI to "help PR professionals understand the ROI of their work."
Essentially, AirPR tracks reader engagement on articles about a brand: "We anonymously collect and aggregate information about folks reading articles, then we use the information to model out consumer behavior." Sathyamurthi explains that AI is an essential tool in this process - from the use of sentiment analysis to machine learning algorithms that "identify spam content and filter it out before the customer has to see that data."
By giving companies like AirPR more powerful methods of data collection, AI is ensuring that brands have the right information about what's effective and what isn't. In turn, the technology allows the humans behind the PR strategy to engage in activities that will have more business impact.
Adapting to AI
Jason Tan is the founder and CEO of Sift Science, a company that uses machine learning to detect and prevent online fraud. Beyond protecting us from online threats, Tan says AI has the potential to "give us back time," which would lead to much more freedom: "At some point, perhaps humans don't have to 'work' in the traditional sense. They can pursue their passions: music, sports, serving others."
Albert Wenger is a managing partner at Union Square Ventures, and he points out that the use of labor-saving technology will always produce casualties if we don't change our attitudes toward work and compensation: "What I see as a risk is that we haven't set up a new social contract where automation is a net positive." That's why Wenger says he's been a "longstanding advocate of universal basic income."
While plenty of analysts don't think AI will cause substantial job losses in the United States, many Americans are skeptical. According to Gallup, 73 percent of Americans say AI will eliminate more jobs than it creates, and 48 percent say they support a universal basic income program to help people "who lose their jobs because of advances in artificial intelligence." Wenger notes that "redistribution is the foundation of a civil society, and schools, roads, and parks are all examples of this."
No matter which view you take, it's clear that we need to think seriously about how AI will affect American workers and consumers. Even if it doesn't lead to significant job losses, it will change everything from the types of jobs that are available to educational requirements to the ways customers interact with companies.
So the real question is: With the bots here to stay, how will we collaborate in order to create net positive effects? Beyond that, for those of us developing and building innovating products, how do we do so mindfully?