Featured image: “Computer inside” by Luke, licensed under CC0.
These days, you can do just about anything from a smartphone. Whether you need to order a meal, arrange a meeting, coordinate childcare or complete any number of life’s daily tasks, there’s a slew of apps and services waiting at your beck and call. Increasingly, these apps and services aren’t just taking care of mundane chores — they’re doing complicated jobs traditionally done by humans.
Technological advancements have been supplanting humans in the workforce since the dawn of time. In fact, technological advancement and human development go so hand-in-hand that it would be crazy to think we’d be where we are today without them. But as tech continues to move forward at a blistering pace, it’s worth stopping to think about what we might be accidentally rendering obsolete, and what we can do to better address it.
Automation is the new norm
While many blue collar professions have already felt the ache wrought by automation, white collar professions aren’t far behind either. Data analysts, bookkeepers and even journalists aren’t safe in their cubicles, and automation has crept into those industries as well. In fact until very recently, so-called “expert” industry professionals — think doctors, scientists and upper-level management positions — were a few of the arenas just barely touched by automation and bots.
These positions require a human who can draw on their expert knowledge of a subject and take account for the context of a situation to provide insightful results, which makes them difficult to replicate with technology. The problem, of course, is that humans are slow, and vast resources of knowledge can be lost if a human leaves a company or retires.
A rising class of platforms has stepped in to fill the void. A platform called Arria NLG is specifically designed to apply human subject matter expertise to problems and situations. The London-based company turns raw data into written reports, but unlike other machine learning platforms, it doesn’t require long lead times to “learn” or giant sets of training data to produce results. The company claims the platform can problem-solve on the fly and adapt reports based on who is reading them.
“We put the wisdom of the expert into the machine and it understands what it’s looking for in the data, just as the expert would,” Joe Deely, Arria NLG’s SVP of Global Partnerships, said in an email. “Essentially, the [platform] provides an expert’s reasoning and reporting from the data.”
For some, this type of innovation represents the same threat packaged in a shiny new way. The technology is either an awe-inspiring feat of human ingenuity, or a terrifying reminder that someday we’re going to innovate ourselves out of usefulness.
But Arria NLG’s technology isn’t totally new. In fact the basic concept at play here — natural language generation, or, turning data into text — began appearing in scholarly computer science articles as early as 1994. While Arria NLG promises to take things a step further by applying a layer of human-like expert analysis, the writing has been on the wall (or the computer screen) for this type of technology to manifest for quite some time.
What platforms like Arria NLG really represent is another step up the ladder in terms of machines automating human tasks. It should come as no surprise that automation has crept into these once untouchable expert-level jobs, and again, human concerns become amplified in an echo chamber of fear: What will I do when a machine makes my job obsolete?
What’s really going on with AI and jobs
Amidst all this talk of futuristic robot overlords, it might help to bring the situation back down to Earth for a second. Some say jobs aren’t actually being lost to the AI workforce, and many who champion machine-learning platforms say they’ll free up time for humans to do more substantive activities.
“We have destroyed zero jobs, and in fact AI is a net creator of jobs,” said Robbie Allen at a SXSW 2016 panel aptly titled, Finding a Job in an Automated Future. Allen is the CEO and founder of Automated Insights, a North Carolina-based company that also uses natural language generation to produce written stories from data. Allen said the company produces more than one billion pieces of content per year for organizations such as the Associated Press, Yahoo! and Allstate.
In reality, what platforms like Arria NLG represent is another step up the ladder in terms of machines automating human tasks. It should come as no surprise that automation has crept into these once untouchable expert-level jobs, and again, human concerns become amplified in an echo chamber of fear: What will I do when a machine makes my job obsolete?
Some clients noticed the positive effects immediately. “Automation has freed up valuable reporting time and reduced the amount of data-processing type work [reporters] had been doing,” said Associated Press Assistant Business Editor Philana Patterson in blog post about the organization’s partnership with the company.
What’s more, worries about the impact of automation and AI on the job market might be overstated, at least in the near future. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs study, which forecasts the employment and skills outlook for 15 major economies and economic areas for 2015 – 2020, found that as many as 7.1 million jobs could be lost in the world’s richest countries due to automation. That may seem significant, but part of the loss will be offset by growth in other sectors, and advancements in the field will not be significant enough to have widespread impact on global employment levels by 2020.
In the near term, the report found the industries most likely to have the largest number of workers displaced by AI are the Education and Training, Legal and Business and Financial Operations fields. But even workers in other fields should start preparing for future disruption. “Without urgent and targeted action today to manage the near-term transition and build a workforce with futureproof skills, governments will have to cope with ever-growing unemployment and inequality, and businesses with a shrinking consumer base,” the report says.
How to prepare
While it’s true these technologies don’t always free people from monotonous routine, for the most part their promise is greater than their potential peril. By viewing bots and technological advancements as allies in the very human quest to make work less “work”-like, all those who warn against the ills of advancement might soon become champions of the free time an automated workforce could allow. For this to work, conversations surrounding machine learning ethics must evolve right alongside the technologies, whether they affect factory-line assembly workers or PhD level scientists.
It’s important to keep in mind that these technologies are ultimately tools that are supposed to work for us, and they’ll continue to serve us so long as we innovate consciously and purposefully. As explained in the Future of Jobs report, workers of all skill levels can do themselves a favor by mentally preparing for a work landscape that will rapidly transform in the coming years. The workforce of tomorrow will need to learn new skills quickly, apply them on the fly and keep an open mind about technology’s expanded role in the workplace. While not feasible for everyone, brushing up on computer skills and gaining a basic understanding of computer science through any number of free platforms isn’t a bad idea either. In a dream world, expanded and subsidized vocational and technical programs would help lower-skilled workers transition into new careers in case an algorithm puts them out of work.
For all the ways that technology has improved our lives and for all the ways it has been celebrated, lauded and held on a pedestal for propelling society forward, it’s good to remember one thing: the only constant is change, and we have to adapt or be left behind.
Editor’s note: Public relations firm Ruder Finn reached out on behalf of Arria NLG to facilitate an interview with Joe Deely. Kirsten O’Brien received no compensation from the firm for writing this piece.