The specific forms change—from hand axes and spears, watermills and windmills, yokes and ploughs, boilers and steam engines, through to computers, networks, and clouds—but the premise is the same: since the dawn of humanity, the future of work means developing tools and processes to increase the return on human effort.
The results speak for themselves: these advances enabled permanent human settlements, spawned great civilizations, powered the agricultural and industrial revolutions, freed up resources and time for the renaissance and, today, drive our information-centric, digital society.
Throughout history, technology has freed up our time and energy, letting us focus our limited attention on things of higher value and strategic importance.
And today is no different.
Thanks to ongoing innovations—particularly with artificial intelligence (AI) and human-computer collaboration—the future of work promises to be characterized by a reduction in time spent on tedious activities, improved business performance, and—importantly—increased employee satisfaction.
This post begins by exploring innovation in the information age and introducing some of the major technologies transforming work. Next, it explores which tasks are well-suited for our machine partners and why human workers are—and will remain—critical participants in the transformation and manifestation of the future of work.
Then, we’ll examine three important and common business needs which can be fulfilled by new technologies.
Finally, we’ll focus on insurance, to show how new technologies can breathe new life and opportunity into one of the world’s oldest industries.
Innovation in the Information Age
“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”—Bill Gates
The last decade has delivered enormous change: new business models (we’ve all seen the infographics about Airbnb and Uber), seemingly everything as a service, digital home assistants, self-driving vehicles—and much more.
Behind the scenes, many of these developments are powered by a combination of technologies, including big data (storage, processing, and analytics), cloud computing, and artificial intelligence.
In particular, advances in AI—and specifically in cognitive computing—hold enormous potential to shape the future of work.
Human-Machine Collaboration and Cognitive Computing
“If you’re looking for a field that will be booming for many years, get into human-machine collaboration and process architecture and design. This isn’t just ‘UX,’ user experience, but entirely new ways of bringing human-machine coordination into diverse fields and creating the new tools we need in order to do so.”—former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov, in Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins
While acknowledging that there’s no widely agreed-upon definition for cognitive computing, Wikipedia tells us that “cognitive computing describes technology platforms that, broadly speaking, are based on the scientific disciplines of artificial intelligence and signal processing.”
Cognitive computing systems are particularly applicable to helping humans become more effective at performing tasks—even complex ones—because such systems are:
- Adaptive: they handle changes in goals and information, which makes them well-suited to dynamic environments and problems
- Interactive: they interact easily with users, plus other processes and systems
- Iterative: they attempt to resolve ambiguity by seeking clarification and additional information; they learn from the past, making them more accurate and effective over time
- Contextual: they recognize, identify, extract, and understand contextual elements such as meaning, syntax, profile information, domain elements—and so on—from both structured and unstructured data
Cognitive computing is behind a number of technologies which are already being applied in the workplace both to aid employees and to assist customers directly. For instance, if you’ve looked into the technology behind digital assistants, then you might recognize terms including natural language processing (NLP), natural language understanding (NLU), dialogue engines, conversational AI, and workflow automation.
Even alone, any of these technologies has the potential to substantially change how we go about our work; in combination, they can make the future of work look and feel very different from what we experience today.
However, it’s important to note that these technologies—while undoubtedly impressive—are merely tools. As such, they are well-suited to performing tasks, rather than fulfilling entire jobs.
Reality Check: Tasks, not Jobs
“Activities which are hard for humans are easy for machines, and activities which are easy for humans are hard for machines.”—a loose summary of Moravec’s paradox
Cognitive systems are extremely capable at tasks involving:
- processes and workflows which must be followed or completed
- searching through large amounts of data to find specific answers or to extract quantitative insights
- assisting humans who are performing more complex activities
As such, most cognitive systems in place today augment human activity—particularly in knowledge and service work—by performing narrow tasks within a much broader job, or by doing work which wasn’t done by humans in the first place (e.g., big data analytics).
The future of work is similar: even as these technologies become more capable and ubiquitous, they will complement and extend human capabilities rather than remove human workers from the process.
In this regard, artificial intelligence in general—and cognitive systems in particular—offer enormous potential to free human workers from tedious tasks, letting people enjoy greater growth and fulfillment.
But this rosy outlook doesn’t mean that companies should race forward with initiatives which force new technologies upon workers. Instead, a much more responsible, ethical, and—in all likelihood—effective approach is to work with workers to identify the best ways in which these systems can be introduced.
Working with Workers
Impact of artificial intelligence, robotics and automation technologies on work, published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), makes it clear that “Workers’ attitudes and behaviour in relation to emerging technologies is a key mediator of the extent and the manner in which they are used. For example, workers’ trust in the technological systems can impact significantly on the effectiveness of their application.”
The report goes on to explain that “For organizations and workers to realise the benefits of innovative technologies, it is crucial that employers involve their people in times of technological implementation. Employees should not view this change as something that is ‘done to them’ – but ‘done with them’.”
Not only does this approach seem like a reasonable ethical obligation, but it will also lead to more successful initiatives. After all, who’s better-suited than workers themselves to identify the cumbersome, difficult, or wastefully time-consuming tasks which are ideal candidates to be handled by a cognitive digital assistant?
By presenting new technologies in the right context and involving employees in their selection and implementation, organizations position themselves to ensure the future of work is productive and of enormous benefit to everyone.
Author: Joseph D’Souza