In a recent interview, I was asked about the rapid improvements in artificial intelligence (AI) and whether they pose a significant threat to jobs in marketing, and, indeed, the wider workforce.
To offer a logical response, we have to understand what we’re discussing and why.
A truncated, working definition of AI would be the automation of processes via machines able to perform cognitive tasks that were once performed by a human. Examples include computers built to defeat chess champions, operate vehicles, and perform specific, repetitive tasks. By no means does the term refer to an omnipotent, omnipresent, fully self-aware machine.
Not yet, anyway.
Why has AI regained popularity suddenly even though the concept has been in existence since 1956? The Economist gave a succinct answer in this article. In summary, a perfect storm has been created through the combination of training an AI system via deep learning methodology, easy availability of large swathes of data (documents, images, videos), and accessible computing prowess that’s affordable.
Given the relatively recent history of AI, it’s easy to see why that Economist journalist, many leading intellectuals, and millions of workers harbour a fear that AI might replace a large chunk of the workforce. We needn’t look further than the Industrial Revolution to see how advances in machinery and technology can render human input obsolete. Where once skilled hands ran textile mills, and the sweat of labourers propelled farming equipment, now machines do the work–never tiring, never falling ill, and never taking a holiday. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, AI is transforming society at “roughly 3,000 times the impact” of the Industrial Revolution, placing us on the crest of a new wave of technological advancement.
Clearly, that prediction is not lost on investors and startups. In 2015, $8.5 billion was spent on AI, almost quadruple the figure in 2010. They anticipate huge, sustained growth in the space, with applications as far reaching as video games, medicine, and the arts.
But let’s not be naive. Jobs were lost then, and many will be lost now. It’s the nature of advancement. What most doomsdayers and naysayers neglect to mention is this: Innovation in AI opens up new worlds of possibility, leading to entire new economies that businesses and workers can transition to. To highlight this, we can look at the issue in microcosm through the lens of photography.
In days gone by, film photography was a slow process, one that required much human input before a photographer could see her finished work. Between ordering film, shooting, then sending the work to a specialist for printing, there were jobs before, during, and after the shutter clicked. When digital photography arrived, many of these were lost. The camera itself was full of AI, from auto-focus and aperture settings to facial recognition, image processing, and white balance adjustments. After shooting, the images could be uploaded to a computer, and printed from the comfort of your own home.
At first glance, we could lament the loss of jobs. Somewhere, a darkroom technician and film expert were now unemployed, wondering where their next payslip would come from. However, digital advancements in photography didn’t result in a net loss of jobs. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Editing software sprung up. Newer cameras arrived that could shoot video as well as stills. Websites were developed by the hundred that allowed photographers to sell their creative to people around the world. The growth in the photography industry was incredible, partly thanks to innovations in imaging-related AI. What’s more, it pushed the boundaries of quality, accessibility, and most importantly, creativity. Now, anyone can buy a camera, shoot, and edit beautiful work. The result is a projected $82.5 billion industry in 2016, up 3.8% from last year. That figure is made up of camera and lens hardware, printers and processing equipment, and digital complementary products. Thirty years ago, these economies were nonexistent.
In most cases, AI presents opportunity, not loss. As innovations develop, we can stay astride them, broadening our skill sets by harnessing that intelligence, not cowering from it. The applications are broad and varied, but here are a few to paint the picture:
- Surgeons and medical professionals could leave menial tasks and some diagnoses to machines capable of deep learning (spotting patterns through assimilating large amounts of data), lessening human error, and freeing them to focus on providing excellent care to their patients.
- Innovations in art and graphic design offer new canvasses but still require the artist’s vision and passion.
- Video games plug in AI to boost realism all the time, from nonplayable characters acting in a certain way to responsive mechanics that change according to stimuli, such as fatigue and weather. The industry will still require humans to use those possibilities to develop compelling, interesting games.
- Customer-experience-related applications are particularly pertinent to us as marketers. We can build mass personalisation–content curated via AI for individual consumers. While machines crunch the data, it still falls to us to apply those findings. If you are intrigued what the future might hold for customer experience read this report: “The Future Of Experience” (PDF).
Our first instinct may be to worry that these examples line the road to human input becoming unnecessary. Rather, we ought to treat them as an incredible opportunity, not just in terms of new career paths and emerging economies to take advantage of, but in terms of the good they can bring to the world.
Back to that camera example. A key differentiator between humans and machines is this: AI can help take good photographs, but it can’t make them. It can’t harvest emotion and meaning from the world around us. For now, that’s a pleasure reserved for humans. All human interaction is built on a foundation of social skills and adaptive, outside-the-box thinking, along with application of that thinking. That’ll always be required, whether it’s in business, medicine, or the arts. Until we have a full, general AI on our hands, we, as humans and working professionals, are the beneficiaries.
I don’t expect that this short article will answer all the socio-economic, technological, and political questions that AI can raise. However, I hope that the framework of thinking in terms of film photography vs. digital photography might provide additional vocabulary for executives to articulate the potential impact of this exciting technological development.