Artificial Intelligence Confronts Workers and Businesses With Choices

The debate about the impact of artificial intelligence on society and especially on jobs shows no sign of letting up. A new addition to the debate is an article by my fellow Deloitte Review contributor, Tom Davenport, and Julia Kirby, in the Harvard Business Review. The essential point is that as these technologies improve we are all going to have to make choices.

I couldn't agree more with the authors that the rapid advance of artificial intelligence technologies, also called cognitive technologies, are poised to change the world of work. It is already starting to. And even if you don't buy into long-range forecasts about the impact of these technologies -- whether rosy or apocalyptic -- it is time to start thinking and planning for the changes to work that are coming.

As cognitive technologies continue to expand what machines are capable of doing, the boundary between the work that computers do and the work that humans do is shifting. This doesn't imply that work is going to disappear. But it does suggest that how we work, and what work we do, will change.

Davenport and Kirby are quite right to suggest that all workers should look at how cognitive technologies may affect their work and their career. Ignoring cognitive technologies may soon seem like refusing to use email or not having a cellphone: if you took this path, pretty soon you might find yourself out of the loop, professionally and even personally.

Most work, if you break it down, consists of some tasks that are pretty routine, and others that tend to be novel. In my own work of analyzing business and technology trends, I spend enormous amounts of time reading, trying to identify patterns. I enjoy reading as much as the next person. But there is more material published than I can possibly read through. That is why I've started to use automated tools to help me sift through large amounts of news and information. Tools like this can help me scan thousands of news sources and quickly identify patterns and clusters of ideas. These tools, which use natural language processing, a cognitive technology, don't draw conclusions about technology trends. But they help me do so more quickly.

Increasingly, cognitive technologies will present workers with choices about how to adopt and adapt to them. Workers are not the only ones with choices to make, though. Organizations are starting to study these technologies and to explore how to apply them. Many of these organizations may discover that they are faced with a choice: use them to cut costs, largely by reducing human labor; or use them to create value, by creating new or better products and services. There is not necessarily one right answer for every company in every situation. Companies need to understand the choices, though, in order to make the right one.

To explore this idea further, take a listen to my podcast Redesigning work in an era of cognitive technologies.