(and why it’s time to get in touch with your inner creative)
A new year is always a time of reflection, and this year I’ve been struck by the number of articles on the subject of AI (Artificial Intelligence). Apparently, 2016 is the year where it finally hits the mainstream. The story is a familiar one: the explosion in availability of data married with the exponential advance in analytics technology will mean that huge swathes of human activity can begin to be replaced by the ‘smarter’ thinking of machines.
For many commentators, this is quite a positive story: Time Magazine published an article last week with ‘5 predictions for Artificial Intelligence in 2016’, suggesting that machines will take over many mundane and repetitive office tasks, but that the combination of smart insights and smart people is the way forward – i.e. we’re not replaced, but reassigned. The article concludes that it will “cease to be a scary, abstract set of ideas and concepts and will be better understood and accepted as more people realize the potential of AI to augment what we do and make our lives more productive”.
Nothing to be concerned about then…except that we all know where this is going. Far from humans and computers working side by side in perfect harmony, Boston Consulting Group is predicting that 25% of all jobs will be replaced by machines within 10 years, which means that not only manual roles will be affected – a cursory glance at my own business career is a case in point; Sales Rep, Category Manager, Channel Marketing Manager, Head of Marketing; how many of these roles might be partially or wholly replaced in the future?
If you don’t believe me, read up on Quill, the amazing new tool from tech company Narrative Science, capable of converting vast quantities of unstructured data into a professional, plain English narrative story. Or IBM’s Watson, a cognitive Q&A based ‘learning’ machine, already in widespread use in healthcare applications – come to think of it, why would you want to talk to a doctor in future anyway, when you could instead consult with a diagnostic computer with instant access to the medical knowledge of all of human history? Makes you think, doesn’t it.
So is tech luminary Elon Musk right when he likens the rise of AI to “summoning a demon”? Should we all simultaneously trash our iPhones and get off the grid before it’s too late?
I prefer a more optimistic view, which is to focus on our unique capabilities as human beings that set us apart from machines. Computers are brilliant linear thinkers, far better than we are at analyzing volumes of data, and now becoming more effective at extracting insight too. But linear thinking often leads to predictable results – in other words, very little differentiation, uniqueness or competitive advantage.
Conversely, we humans are capable of being extraordinarily unpredictable when we put our minds to it. We may not believe it, but we do have the ability to be creative, to throw out convention and to consider a world of infinite possibility, driven not just by pure logic, but by raw emotion, belief and passion. Therein lies the path to future success. To misquote George Bernard Shaw, machines “can look at things and ask why, but I can dream of things that never were and ask why not”.