"We cannot solve our problems with the same kind of thinking that we used when we created them," Albert Einstein supposedly said. One of his namesakes, an artificial intelligence called Einstein that Salesforce is incorporating into all of its products, embodies that sentiment: Salesforce is betting that human cognition won't drive its next wave of commercial growth. Rather, machine learning will push Salesforce's products deeper into its clients' businesses, and help Salesforce penetrate new companies, by augmenting human decision-making.

If Einstein is anywhere near as useful as Salesforce claims, the technology will supplant some human workers -- maybe a lot of them. Salesforce wants to make sales and marketing more efficient, which means that fewer people will be needed accomplish the same tasks. CEO Marc Benioff once wrote, "The only constant in the technology industry is change." Automation has hit factory workers hard, and soon members of the information economy will feel the same pain. The deadline may arrive before most knowledge workers, or the societies they occupy, are prepared.

On Tuesday, Salesforce held a "customer kickoff" event. It executives and partners discussed product development, with a heavy focus on Einstein's artificial intelligence capabilities. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty spoke briefly, apropos the two companies' recently announced partnership. "2017 is the year that AI enters the world at scale," she said. "The cognitive era is just beginning."

Of course, humans have engaged in cognition as long as the species has existed. What Rometty meant is we won't keep our monopoly on thought for long.

AI has been subject to enough hype cycles that default skepticism is warranted. However, recent technological breakthroughs suggest that the frothy press coverage and equally frothy corporate salivation may indicate something real this time. Google's DeepMind division programmed an AI that beat a complex strategy game before anyone expected it to be able to. Andrew Ng, renowned machine learning expert and chief scientist at Baidu, told the Wall Street Journal, "I think we're in the phase where AI will change pretty much every major industry."

Ng added, "Things may change in the future, but one rule of thumb today is that almost anything that a typical person can do with less than one second of mental thought we can either now or in the very near future automate with AI." Perhaps human workers should be frightened, since "there are a lot of jobs that can be accomplished by stringing together many one-second tasks."

Salesforce's Einstein is already doing some of this. In practical terms, the AI will not provoke an immediate revolution -- it's a version of what many SaaS clients expect from the applications they pay for. You could even argue that innovation hides in plain sight. Einstein enables prosaic but immensely useful functions like automated lead-scoring, based on information pulled into Salesforce's system. Einstein can aggregate signals such as whether a contact has looked at marketing materials (e.g. a webinar or whitepaper), and what their role is within the target organization.

"In a world powered by AI, signals are important," chief product officer Alex Dayon noted at the customer kickoff event. Einstein is able to interpret a variety of data inputs without much setup. In fact, most of Einstein's capabilities are available out of the box. Other features like Einstein Vision have to be integrated by developers. Salesforce is bringing automatic customization to all of its customers, while enabling those with greater resources to craft a deeper layer of specialized processes.

Some levels of customization are designed to be leveraged by non-technical users. "I can create a lead-management process with clicks, not code," product marketing EVP Stephanie Buscemi said. Salespeople who use Einstein are "not just smarter, they're also more productive," according to Buscemi.

Today's productivity gains are tomorrow's layoffs. It's not that productivity gains are bad. Rather, increased efficiency simply means that fewer inputs produce greater outputs. As it stands, labor is among the most significant inputs for a majority of businesses. The acceleration of what artificial intelligence can do is poised to multiply the impact of individual human workers -- while obsoleting others.

Published on: Mar 8, 2017