In 1989, moviegoers across the world watched in awe as Marty McFly and Doc Brown jumped aboard the DeLorean time machine and travelled to the year 2015 in Back to the Future Part II.
It's hard to believe 26 years have passed since the film hit our screens and what once seemed a far-off future has become the here and now. At first glance, director Robert Zemeckis' vision of 2015 - flying cars and all - might seem somewhat far-fetched. However, look a little closer and you'll see the future encountered by Marty and Doc isn't quite so far removed from reality.
The time travelers visited a world dominated by Artificial Intelligence (AI), where services from petrol stations to cafes were operated by technology rather than human beings. If you stop and think, you'll realize a similar transformation is occurring in the real world.
From using a self-service checkout to having a conversation with an automated phone system, we now have everyday interactions with services that were once carried out by people, but are now run by machines.
AI is already a common feature in our lives and its influence will only grow in the coming years. For the global workforce, this rise of machines will have a dramatic impact, with many more positions likely to be assumed by technology. Indeed, it has been predicted that technology will have displaced more jobs than it creates as early as 2025.
The development of AI will have a fundamental impact on the workforce and, consequently, on your business too. As a result, now is the time to ask yourself whether you are ready for the second machine age, which will see technology have a far-reaching impact on the world of work, the like of which has not been experienced since the Industrial Revolution. You need to be ready to ensure that for your organization this represents a change for the better.
Rise of the machines
AI is already prevalent in modern life and its influence extends across a number of industries. Retail's use of self-service checkouts is an obvious example of this, with the technology meaning shops and supermarkets now need far fewer employees in-store than in the past. Other sectors where the use of AI is commonplace include:
Manufacturing - Repetitive work that was once carried out by humans is now fulfilled by machines. The automotive industry and its car assembly lines are a prime example.
Customer service - From banks to airlines and governments, any organization that interacts with customers over the phone can now utilize automated systems, meaning fewer employees are needed to take calls.
Reporting - Advances in technology mean any job that can have an algorithm built around it can feasibly be performed by machines. This is already happening in some areas of reporting. For example, many reports of sports results are now automated, as are businesses' financial results, without any human input or intervention.
"Clearly AI will have a big impact on the economies of technologically-advanced countries. Not only are manufacturing and clerical jobs threatened, but also law, education and financial services jobs, especially mid-level positions. I believe that AI will change every profession, as well as the talent management strategies of many organizations, the big questions are how and what can we do to be prepared?"
Dave Barthel, Managing Director EMEA Business Development
The potential of AI is made apparent by the level of investment it is attracting from some of the biggest organizations in the world. Google for instance, has been pouring some considerable resources into this area in recent years. The tech giant has made a number of acquisitions in the AI space and has a considerable amount of research resources devoted to exploring machine learning. One of its projects is Google Deepmind, which aims to create a computer that can imitate human memory to the extent that it is capable of programming itself.
Apple too has invested in AI. The company made headlines with the inclusion of the AI personal assistant Siri on the iPhone 4S and this feature is now common on many smartphones. Many of the rising organizations based in China are also putting considerable investment into AI - recognition of the key role it is set to play in the business world of the future.
A new future
The rise of AI has the potential to be one of the most powerful transforming forces in human history, the influence of which will be felt across the world and, naturally, the prospect of a mass displacement of human workers in favor of machines is a worry for some.
Stephen Hawking has gone so far as to predict that AI may eventually threaten the very existence of the human race, as the limitations of our slow biological evolution mean we are "superseded" by machines. Similar concerns have been voiced by renowned tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, who has described AI as humankind's "biggest existential threat". Both of these thought leaders have put their name to an open letter published by the Future of Life Institute that calls for precautions to be taken in the future development of AI.
A degree of caution is understandable, and perhaps advisable, concerning this rise of machines, yet there is no reason to believe the continued development of AI will mean the end for humanity. After all, the Luddites of the 19th century wrongly believed the introduction of new factory machinery would bring about the decline of skilled work in the UK.
While AI will mean the end for human involvement in some jobs, work will remain - history has shown us that. However, the coming of this second machine age is likely to have some considerable social implications.
Technology is becoming increasingly capable of performing mid-level jobs, but there are still certain things it simply cannot do. High-level positions are an obvious example - we are unlikely to see a robot CEO anytime soon - but there are also certain low-level roles where a human worker is still more efficient. For example, a machine is yet to be designed that can stack shelves, or even go up and down stairs, as effectively as a human being.
With mid-level 'knowledge worker' jobs most under threat from AI, this means the divide between those at the top and bottom of society - the haves and have-nots - is likely to widen. The improved efficiency provided by technology will boost economies, but for many people, wage growth will not reflect this.
Such disparity may well be felt on a global level. Many jobs that Western organizations once outsourced to emerging markets in Asia will instead be undertaken by machines either at home or abroad - a change that could have considerable implications for these nations.
The world of work will obviously still remain following the rise of AI, but it is likely to be a much-changed place.
What does it mean for me?
So, how will the transformation of the workforce by AI affect you? The rise of machines will have a significant impact on all businesses and particularly HR and procurement professionals. For the former, a large swathe of the employees they once managed will be replaced by technology and organizational design will be altered as large companies have smaller workforces than in the past.
Those staff that remain will also be different. With machines assuming certain jobs, other positions will increase in prominence. This will be particularly apparent in the digital sphere, with roles in this area becoming far more important. Indeed, signs of this development can already be seen - who would have thought a few years ago that Data Scientist would become one of the most in-demand job titles on the market?
Bringing in the best
As old roles fall and new ones emerge in their place, competition for people with the necessary skills will remain as fierce as ever. It is possible a whole new level of intensity will be reached if the current trend of a global skills shortage in key areas continues. There is already a lack of people in the labor market with the skills modern organizations need, which indicates there is a disconnect between education and the requirements of the business world. Unless this gap is bridged, the rise of AI will only accentuate the skills shortage and, as a result, the hunt for talent.
In light of this, organizations should identify the specific core skills they are likely to need in the future now and think about the best way to recruit and retain people with these abilities. That way, they will be best placed to adapt and maintain a competitive edge as the rise of AI continues to pick up pace.
While half of experts think technology will displace jobs, the other half believe AI has the potential to create as many new opportunities as it replaces. After all, people will still be required to code and develop these machines, while many new roles, that we as yet can't imagine, are also likely to come to the fore. The world of work will change, but having access to the best people for the most important positions, whatever they may be, will still be key.
Time to prepare
AI is an emotive subject and represents many things to many people. For some it represents the next step in human evolution, while to Jerry Michalski, founder of think-tank REX, it is "Voldemort: the terrifying force nobody is willing to name".
Looking past the hyperbole, what is clear is that the rise of AI will have a huge transformative effect on the global workforce one way or another. It is near inevitable that machines will assume certain jobs and that will have an impact on businesses of all shapes and sizes.
Now is the time for your organization to think about how AI will affect it and what this could mean for your workforce. Even in the second machine age, people will still be key to business success and it will be those organizations that can unlock the full potential of both their employees and technology that will lead the way in this new future.
"Increasing automation has destroyed many jobs over the years, when computers have taken over tasks of a repetitive nature such as bookkeeping, clerical work and production work in factories. At the same time, demand has increased for high-paying jobs requiring creativity and problem-solving skills, as well as low-paying jobs like caretakers, nurses, restaurant workers, etc. Unfortunately, no one can predict the future of what AI will bring, but it is clear that everyone is likely to see and feel the impact at some point in time."
Dave Barthel, Managing Director EMEA Business Development