AI in the Factory of the Future: The Ghost in the Machine
There is no question that artificial intelligence (AI) is presenting huge opportunities for companies to automate business processes. However, as you prepare to insert machine learning applications into your business processes, I’d recommend that you not fantasize about how a computer that can win at Go or poker can surely help you win in the marketplace. A better reference point will be your experience implementing your enterprise resource planning (ERP) or another enterprise system. Yes, effective ERP implementations enhanced the competitiveness of many companies, but a greater number of companies found the experience more of a nightmare. The promised opportunity never came to fruition. Why am I raining on the AI parade? Because, as with enterprise systems, AI inserted into businesses drives value by improving processes through automation. But eventually, the outputs of most automated processes require people to do something. As most managers have learned the hard way, computers can process data just fine, but that processing isn’t worth much if people are feeding them bad data in the first place or don’t know what to do with information or analysis once it’s provided.
Digital computers have transformed work in almost every sector of the economy over the past several decades. We are now at the beginning of an even larger and more rapid transformation due to recent advances in machine learning (ML), which is capable of accelerating the pace of automation itself. However, although it is clear that ML is a general purpose technology, like the steam engine and electricity, which spawns a plethora of additional innovations and capabilities, there is no widely shared agreement on the tasks where ML systems excel, and thus little agreement on the specific expected impacts on the workforce and on the economy more broadly. We discuss what we see to be key implications for the workforce, drawing on our rubric of what the current generation of ML systems can and cannot do [see the supplementary materials (SM)]. Although parts of many jobs may be suitable for ML (SML), other tasks within these same jobs do not fit the criteria for ML well; hence, effects on employment are more complex than the simple replacement and substitution story emphasized by some. Although economic effects of ML are relatively limited today, and we are not facing the imminent end of work as is sometimes proclaimed, the implications for the economy and the workforce going forward are profound.
Artificial intelligence is our most powerful technology, and in the coming decades it will change everything in our lives. If we get it right it will make humans almost godlike. If we get it wrong… well, extinction is not the worst possible outcome. Surviving AI is a concise, easy-to-read guide to what’s coming, taking you through technological unemployment (the economic singularity) and the possible creation of a superintelligence (the technological singularity).