Conundrum of Artificial Intelligence

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“Artificial intelligence” has become the new buzzword of the 21st century. It has been discussed in every context, yet many professionals still don’t truly understand the profound implications of this technology. Artificial intelligence (AI) is defined as the “theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence” (Ketter). AI has been used in a variety of software solutions in industries ranging from IT outsourcing to biomedical research. The sheer number of applications reliant on this technology is rapidly increasing, with the big question for many becoming “How will this impact me and my business?” Discussion on this question has gone on for decades, with many unique viewpoints weighing in on the negatives and positives that will result from this technological advance. With little common ground shared between these two outlooks, there still hasn’t been any wide consensus on what the future will look like with artificial intelligence.

On one hand, many praise artificial intelligence for its ability to reduce redundancies within a business and cut costs. It is also recognized for its ability to add tremendous value from large stores of data which were unusable in the past. On the other hand, many disparage AI for the jobs it will inevitably replace and the associated loss of employment. This technology is also criticized for not being transparent in how it operates and comes to conclusions. Yet, even with these strikingly contrasting perspectives, professionals have been able to unify behind the belief that artificial intelligence will have a drastic effect on businesses and their stakeholders. Only through comparing the overall impact of AI will we have a clear picture of the true implications this technology has.

Although there are widely contrasting beliefs about what artificial intelligence will mean for businesses and stakeholders, most will agree that many classes of jobs will be rendered obsolete by automation. A 2017 Accenture research report held that 20 percent of all jobs within the United States face a high risk of becoming obsolete within the next two decades (Ketter). Some estimates are even higher, with a 2016 Oxford study having projected “nearly half of all U.S. jobs will become automated within the next two decades and about 47 percent of the U.S. workforce is at risk of becoming obsolete due to automation” (Tuffley). Regardless of the source or study you review, there is no disagreement about the fact that AI will increasingly be replacing humans in a variety of roles. Rather, the only disputed point is how many jobs in our current workforce are at risk of becoming automated in the coming years.

Entire industries are experiencing drastic changes, with some even facing extreme radical transformations. As an example, the vehicle operating industry has been racing towards developing self-driving vehicles. This sector currently provides close to 10% of all the jobs in the United States (Vardi). Thus, the automation of driving would lead to the destruction of essentially all of these previously stable jobs and leave many questioning their financial well-being. There is no running way from the reality that the automation of many tasks will inevitably lead to the redundancy of once reliable occupations. As employees are a crucial stakeholder in the businesses they work for, this inescapable implication for jobs will have a key role in determining the overall effect AI will have.

Still, this technological advance won’t necessarily take away jobs because it is most effective at specific tasks. “Artificial intelligence will enhance jobs rather than remove them” (Norman). Technology and human intelligence have “different characteristic, different strengths, and different ways of working”, and productivity is the highest when they are enabled to work together. Humans generally excel at tasks that require the exercise of creativity, a response to unexpected situations, or general attentiveness to the surroundings environment. On the other hand, machines excel at processing information very quickly, never getting bored, and reliably doing the things they are designed to do. In this way, humans and machines are inherently different with different habits and skillsets. Martin Chavez, CFO of Goldman Sachs, didn’t believe financial technology using AI would displace many employees, as the software was doing something that was “previously so time consuming that it was seldom attempted” (Popper). Artificial intelligence is often doing tasks that humans are not efficient at or would never initially engage in, while leaving much of the work that humans are better suited for.

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Moreover, artificial intelligence won’t necessarily replace your job. There are many ways you can diversify your skillset so you can continue to stay competitive, as “artificial intelligence will lead to demand of different areas of expertise including ethics, which helps shape how software interacts with humans” (Tuffley). Learning a variety of different subjects, from ethics to computer science and statistics will allow you to keep ahead in the future economy. Having these relevant skills in your toolbox will prevent AI from meaning the demise of your professional career, but rather provide you with the opportunity to excel.

Furthermore, in addition to the effect on jobs, the implementation of artificial intelligence within businesses has far reaching consequences for the entire economy that are often ignored. We must begin by investigating how this technological advance might replace more jobs then it will create, which departs from the historical results of previous innovations. Andrew McAfee, associate director of the Center for Digital Business at the MIT Sloan School of Management, argues that AI is distinct because “our machines are now showcasing skills that they have never shown before, including writing, understanding, and much more” (“What Will Future”). This software is now even capable of performing tasks that were traditionally only associated with white-collar work, and threatening “safe” occupations. With this new development, many jobs held by those in the middle class could be replaced with programs that implement artificial intelligence. A conundrum becomes increasingly apparent for businesses. “If you want to sell a lot of goods, you want to have a prosperous middle class to buy your goods”. With the middle class being under a substantial threat of having their livelihoods become obsolete with AI, there could potentially be an extreme backlash for businesses who serve consumers. A declining middle-class means businesses will find a smaller customer base to sell their goods to, and ironically won’t be able to improve their bottom line through the use of this technology.

Another often ignored component of artificial intelligence is its opaque confusing process of coming to conclusions, which could have negative repercussions for consumers. Paula Ketter, the editor of TD magazines, explains how “AI programs make numerous decisions on their own, lack transparency, and may change frequently” (Ketter). How then can we ensure that this software is following pertinent laws and ethical standards? Ketter cites a real-world example when a California policeman stopped a Google self-driving car because it impeded traffic by traveling too slowly, but the officer didn’t know who to cite. In another example, Google had faced allegations that its search engine “discriminated against women by showing ads for well-paying jobs to men more frequently than to women”. These two cases beg the question of how artificial intelligence can be held accountable to the law. Without an exhaustive investigation into the source code of these programs, there is no way to truly know how they inherently come to decisions. Artificial intelligence is extremely complex, with the algorithms and data sets becoming “black boxes that offer us no accountability, traceability, or confidence” (Etzioni). It is extremely difficult to trace the steps a complex program has made to come to its decision, which makes its true effects increasingly difficult to understand.

It is clear that there are negatives inherently associated with the implementation of AI software for businesses and their stakeholders. However, in life you can’t have good without bad – and artificial intelligence is no exception. This technological advance is just the next essential stepping stone for businesses to improve operations and efficiency. Artificial intelligence offers opportunities to improve outdated processes that were simply never available in the past. Yet, many of these positives are pushed to the wayside, as many professionals prefer to focus on the effects for general employment. However, these positives must be considered in order for us to have a clear picture in understanding the real implications of artificial intelligence.

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Artificial intelligence will support businesses in increasing their productivity beyond any level that was feasible in the past. These programs are remarkably efficient at consistently performing tedious tasks that would have taken days to complete. A 2017 Accenture report found that AI alone would have the potential to boost labor productivity by up to 40 percent by 2035 in developed countries (Ketter). This is a substantial increase, and would allow every industry to reduce the time spent on redundant tasks. Nadler, the founder of Kensho, a startup focusing on using artificial intelligence to create financial reports, stated that his software would be able to generate a query in a few minutes that “would have taken days, probably 40 man-hours, from people who were making an average of 350,000 to 500,000 dollars a year” (Popper). Artificial intelligence provides businesses the opportunity to take advantage of information they otherwise would have never had access to, all the while saving a substantial amount of money on overhead. In a similar example, Eric Wilson, the vice president of purchase-to-pay at Baseware, which is a leading provider of e-invoicing solutions, touched on how artificial intelligence improved his processes tremendously. In the mid 1980s with slight automation – invoices were $15 to produce and were 80% on time, with AI improving this metric to $4 per invoice and 99% on time (Popper). Artificial intelligence was the catalyst for this drastic improvement, and offers the opportunity to improve productivity for every industry sector.

Many businesses have already seen the endless potential possible through using artificial intelligence, and have already incorporated this technology into their product offerings with a great deal of success. “We already have AI in our lives, such as software in the backroom of hospitals that diagnose X-rays better than human doctors and in legal offices where software goes through legal evidence better than a lawyer can” (“How AI can”). Similarly, these algorithms are also used to suggest movies and shows on Netflix, along with helping airplanes function on autopilot. The potential applications of artificial intelligence are endless, and businesses across a wide range of industries are taking advantage of these programs to greatly improve their performance and offerings to consumers. The extent of these improvements can be seen through the sheer size of investments that have gone into artificial intelligence research and development. A Bloomberg news report stated, “of the $2.9 billion spent on R&D by Baidu in the last two and a half years, the bulk of it has been on AI” (Castelluccio). This is only a single firm, and truly shows the potential that many companies see in artificial intelligence and the results that it promises. Firms are already experiencing immense successes attributed to the use of artificial intelligence.

AI also provides businesses with the opportunity to draw insights from data on an unprecedented scale. A plethora of companies have large stores of data they have compiled, and previously had no method to gather useful metrics or determine valuable relationships. “We have reached a scale with data in which we can no longer handle the large volume of data and communications usefully without advances likes AI” (Greenberg). As customers are increasingly demanding individualized interactions with companies, businesses are increasingly relying on the information discovered by AI to personalize their product offers. Stitch Fix, a personal clothing company that uses AI to personalize and tailor their clothing offers to customer tastes, is one company that is built off this concept. Each time a customer is sent clothes, they keep what they want and return the rest; the company’s machine then learns from this selection to further personalize the company’s clothing offers. The “Internet and social media revolution has spawned mass quantities of new kinds of data, which had been stored but rarely looked at or used in decision making” (Williams). This data, when processed efficiently, can provide managers and executives with the tools necessary to greatly improve business performance. It is clear that without the use of artificial intelligence, data brimming with insights would be rendered useless.

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Furthermore, although artificial intelligence is often criticized for automating certain jobs, this technology is also creating new opportunities. For the last 200 years, people have continued to believe that the “age of technological unemployment is at hand” (McAfee). Yet, we have consistently experienced a greater growth in the creation of new lines of work that has outpaced the demise of old jobs. “Although AI would eliminate some redundant tasks, it would lead to the creation of new jobs for operating the AI” (Ketter). Furthermore, artificial intelligence will create an industry entirely unto itself, which will require an influx of professionals. Most forecasters estimate the size of the AI market to be somewhere between $12 billion and $16 billion by 2020 (Greenberg). These newly created jobs have the potential to offset those automated by AI, similar to what we have seen with past innovations.

Finally, AI will also have a wider positive social impact. About 1.25 million people worldwide die from car accidents, with 90% of these accidents caused by human error (Vardi). With these figures in mind, the automation of driving could save over a million lives a year and avoiding countless numbers of injuries. From a business standpoint, the use of AI promises almost perfect safety, which is a key selling point in marketing efforts geared towards potential customers. Similarly, consumers greatly benefit from the decreased risk of injuries while they are operating vehicles. This is one of many examples of positive features that goes to show that artificial intelligence has a positive reach going beyond what many traditionally associate it with.

The debate on the true impacts of artificial intelligence has led to the creation of two factions: those who tout its positives and those who are fearful of its negatives. The overarching question then becomes whether the positives are able to compensate for the drawbacks. Viewpoints from both sides are extremely valid. On one hand, there is no doubt that artificial intelligence will lead to a series of ethical dilemmas, including the potential for discrimination and the extinction of certain lines of work. Yet, even with the negatives inherently associated with the implementation of AI, it is still exceedingly clear that the positives derived from the use of artificial intelligence greatly outweigh the negatives. Artificial intelligence has provided businesses with the ability to process large amounts of previously unusable data to discover crucial insights, leading to profit-building and performance improving decisions. Additionally, these insights have also allowed businesses to better serve their customers by personalizing their product offerings for each individual. Furthermore, these programs also create new industries and lines of work. We see many positives from AI that would have never been possible without its use in a wide range of software.

Imagine a world where your Netflix account doesn’t provide you tailored suggestions, and you frustratingly glare at your computer aimlessly hoping to find something you like. Then imagine a world where artificial intelligence isn’t implemented in the airplane you are flying in and the pilot falls asleep. These are only a few select examples of the different ways AI has positively impacted our lives. Without a doubt, artificial intelligence has a net positive impact on businesses and their respective stakeholders. Shareholders gain from the success of the business and consumers prosper as goods are tailored to them. Even the employees remaining will prosper as they will have an increased number of tools to assist them in completing their jobs, drastically improving productivity. Artificial intelligence will have an increasing role in our future, and I believe we should all pay close attention to this “trend” – because it’s here to stay.

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