Watson Calling? The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Business

Business.com / Business Intelligence / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

A look at predictions about advances in artificial intelligence. Will more jobs be created than destroyed?

Bob Dylan walks into a room and speaks with Watson, IBM’s artificial intelligence program (and Jeopardy quiz champion).

We learn that the computer can not only seemingly have a conversation with a person, but can analyze Dylan’s complex and frequently ambiguous lyrics. It can’t, however, sing. (Though some would make the same claim about Dylan.)

This commercial is part of IBM’s Cognitive Business ad campaign that claims artificial intelligence (AI) systems such as Watson can make “virtually everything—every object, product, service, and process—…cognitive.”

AI technologies can not only sort data but, in a sense, think about what the data means and also act upon it to achieve best outcomes.

As Charles McLellan points out, “AI has often been popularly envisaged in super-smart humanoid robot form. In fact, it’s more commonly implemented as behind-the-scenes algorithms that can process ‘big’ data to accomplish a range of relatively mundane tasks far more efficiently than humans can.”

Related article: Separating Big Data from Big Buzz

AI Isn’t A Brain, But It’s Close Enough

AI is taking off as a result of raw computing processing power enabled by highly affordable and ever-shrinking integrated circuit chip sizes used in networks that can analyze vast amounts of data in parallel. McLellan points to IBM’s SyNAPSE chip, with 54 billion 28nm transistors and a million programmable “neurons” and 254 programmable integrated synaptic connections. The company’s goal is to build a chip with 10 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses. (In case you’re getting worried, your brain contains some 100 billion neurons and up to a thousand trillion synaptic connections, the working details of which continue to mystify neuroscientists and mystics alike.)

So, rest easy, the robots aren’t coming to take over the world, though they might easily replace some human workers for certain tasks.

The Driverless Car

The driverless car is one example of practical AI at work. While still in its early stages, it won’t be that long before people literally put their cars on autopilot. Telsa’s $75,000 electric car today can drive itself to some extent; it can even make lane changes, reports The New York Times. And according to the Associated Press, Toyota expects to be selling AI-enabled driverless cars by 2020.

For all traditional cab and chauffeur companies complaining about Uber drivers today, it seems the writing is on the wall. Eventually, Uber won’t even need human drivers though the technology to summon vehicles at anyone’s beck and call will remain.

For the moment, and perhaps only for the moment, no one’s job is in immediate danger. But things are changing. McClellan notes the predictions of the Gartner Group about where AI is taking us in the immediate future:

  • In the upcoming year, more than $2 billion in online shopping will be conducted not by people but by mobile digital assistants that “know” our preferences and desires (and, presumably, are always on the lookout for a bargain).
  • By 2018, digital businesses will need fewer process workers; the total cost of business ownership will be reduced by 30 percent due to AI-assisted technologies. This will also spur more businesses, which will create more jobs.

Historically, technology has created more jobs than it eliminated. The problem is acquiring the skills needed to perform those jobs. The out-of-work chauffeur, for example, might be re-employed as a personal assistant, performing other tasks on behalf of the employer while sitting in the driver’s seat, just in case a human needs to take over.

Related article: Checklist for Business Intelligence Systems

Jobs At Risk From AI

As Tech Republic points out, the jobs most at risk are those that involve routine and strictly defined, limited tasks. The way MIT economist Erik Brynjolfsson sees it:

These middle-skilled structured tasks, routine information processing tasks will continue to be under a lot of pressure: bookkeepers, travel agents, legal aids—maybe not lawyers or attorneys but the first level associates. I already talked to one big law firm and they said they're not hiring as many of those sorts of people because a machine can scan through hundreds of thousands or millions of documents and find the relevant information for a case or a trial much more quickly and accurately than a human can.

But the PEW Research Center notes that slightly more than half of economists surveyed believed that AI applications will not displace more jobs they create; at worst case, the overall effect will be neutral. Deloitte economists maintain that new technology historically creates more jobs than it eliminates and that current trends save workers from dull, repetitive tasks and replace them with more engaging work. 

Of course, that only matters to you personally if your job or business is the type that is not affected.

Ten years from now, Uber may not need drivers. But it might need to hire more programmers. No doubt some drivers will make the transition. But for those whose jobs are replaced by AI and who lack the necessary skills and aptitudes for new work, what does the future hold? 

That’s a question not even IBM’s Watson is sure how to answer. And the fact that it can’t answer it means it’s going to be a long time before the work of humans completely goes away. 

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