Opinion
Jo Owen 5 Oct 2017 02:40pm

The competition with robots

Technology may well alter the professions but it won’t replace them, or not just yet, so long as humans raise their game and keep control of the more complex or challenging business tasks

What do the following have in common: Korean baseball fans (for an unsuccessful team); camel racing jockeys; dairy hands; Japanese waitresses and recruitment interviewers?

They have all been replaced, in some places, by robots. The Korean baseball team, Hanwha Eagles, filled a stand with robots that would chant and wave signs on command at the right moments. Supporters not able to get to the stadium could control the bots over the internet.

Beyond the anecdotes, the University of Oxford looked at the future of employment. It predicted, with spurious accuracy, that 47% of existing jobs would be taken over by robots and AI within the next 20 years. In practice, anyone could have made exactly the same prediction at any time in the past 250 years.

The Industrial Revolution has been destroying jobs and industries non-stop for all that time. It has also been creating far more and better paid jobs than all the ones that were being destroyed. Anyone fancy going back to being a coal miner, cotton worker or railway navvy?

In the past, the jobs being destroyed were the blue-collar jobs. Technology and globalisation meant that basic labour could either be automated easily or moved to cheaper shores. What is different this time is that AI and robots are taking over white-collar roles. Is your profession about to go the same way as the miners?

Traditionally, bosses had the brains and the workers had the hands. The job of management was to get the ideas out of their heads and into the hands of the workers. Thinking and doing were different jobs. The thinking side of management is largely about pattern recognition. Once we have seen the same sort of movie 20 times, we are pretty good at predicting what will happen in the 21st movie. This is true whether you are a recruiter interviewing graduates, a lawyer dealing with contract disputes or a web developer working on a website. You see the same patterns arise time and again, so you know what to do next time round.

A rite of initiation for all P&G brand managers, for example, was to go into a darkened room and watch every piece of advertising for that brand since it started. It was like watching a social history of Britain for the past 50 years. Each piece of advertising was tagged with the rating it achieved in market research. By the end of one afternoon, even the rawest manager would have developed an uncanny ability to predict how well each piece of advertising would perform. This had nothing to do with advertising flair, and everything to do with pattern recognition.

The one thing AI is really good at is pattern recognition: the core skill of many professionals is being challenged for the very first time. It will, inevitably, take time for AI to accumulate the experience and to recognise the patterns: sifting the signal from the noise is tough. As with driverless cars, it may take a long time to get there, but once AI capability reaches critical mass it will become an unstoppable force.

The emergence of AI in the professional world will create winners and losers. The losers will be professionals engaged in fairly routine tasks where pattern recognition is easier to codify. The winners will be the professionals and managers who raise their game and focus on dealing with the more complex and ambiguous tasks. Experience shows that corporate life is full of crises, cock-ups, conflicts and moments of uncertainty, ambiguity and panic. That is very good news for your future. If you experience corporate life as a smooth running machine that hums along perfectly, then AI can replace you.

If we want to stay ahead of technology and our peers, we have to seek out the roles that will challenge us and develop us the most. In the past, career survival meant avoiding risk. In future, survival requires accepting the risk of the more challenging tasks and assignments. Life is about to get a lot more interesting.

Jo Owen is an author, a keynote speaker and the founder of eight NGOs. His latest book is Global Teams (FT Publishing/Pearson)

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