big yawn

From the Spinning Jenny, a mechanical weaver that increased worker's output and contributed to the industrial revolution, to the CMS tools replacing archive managers in the early 21st century, technology has replaced difficult and time-consuming labor. 

But these changes often provoke fear that the new technology will replace jobs. Generally speaking, this isn’t the case: time and again, new technology has created new (and niche) side industries and jobs. 

The latest technology to strike fear is artificial intelligence. Some worry that artificial intelligence will bring about so much change so fast, that it will leave huge swathes of the workforce jobless. 

An often cited 2013 report from the University of Oxford (pdf) suggested that close to 50 percent of US jobs could be automated and replaced by robots within 20 years. Those who are opposed to artificial intelligence worry that it will become so advanced in almost all types of work, rendering humans practically obsolete in the production process. 

No one can predict the future. However, by looking at how businesses are using machine learning today we might gain some clarity as to what artificial intelligence might look like in the workplace in a few years’ time. 

Machine Learning Today: A Vendor Sampling

There are a lot of exciting innovations occurring in the world of machine learning. Let’s look at some use cases today:

Amazon Web Services: Web retail giant Amazon provides developers with a range of tools to improve efficiency and better understand customers. Businesses can use machine learning tools to:

  • Detect fraud that humans would likely miss
  • Personalize content for online marketing to improve the customer journey
  • Predict customer behaviors based on modeling

Azure Machine Learning: Microsoft has been experimenting with machine learning for years, but the Azure cloud network opens up a range of opportunities for developers. Especially popular for predictive analytics, the platform has been used to predict anything from student dropout rates to solving global water challenges.  

IBM's Bluemix: The people behind Watson, the Jeopardy-winning supercomputer have also produced Bluemix, a set of pre-built machine learning tools that developers can effectively plug into their own applications. This means you can bring natural language, ranking, social analysis and visual recognition capabilities into your apps.  

Metalogix: A creator of tools for SharePoint management, Metalogix has built the Sensitive Content Manager. The tool can parse through hundreds of thousands of documents in a company’s CMS to discover documents that contain Personally Identifiable Information. If these aren’t classified according to the correct standards, Sensitive Content Manager can alert SharePoint administrators to this risk. 

These use cases are just a snapshot of how machine learning supports businesses today. What do they show us? By and large, machine learning is not substituting jobs or people. In fact, it’s making us more efficient, helping us understand our customers better and saving workers the drudgery of sorting through huge documents and spreadsheets to understand trends. 

What About AI's Future in the Workplace?

If today’s machine learning tools are anything to go by, AI's future looks rather benign. 

Not to say that artificial intelligence will have no negative impacts. From predictive analytics to providing more personalized shopping experiences, machine learning today is simply making us better at our jobs and cutting out boring and time consuming tasks — there’s no reason to expect this to change. 

If anything, we can hope that technology's continued evolution can help us solve some of humanity’s other, more serious challenges. Imagine how machine learning might equip us to tackle something as devastating as worldwide hunger?

Machine learning and artificial intelligence have until now helped enhance and improve our knowledge and understanding, making work more efficient while cutting out menial and dull work. Just a few decades ago, much office work was carried out by armies of secretaries on typewriters. However, when word processors emerged, the whole process of producing documents, editing them collaboratively and making changes became vastly more efficient, allowing us to do way more than would have been possible in the past. 

Assuming artificial intelligence will necessarily be a bad thing is premature. Just as previous technological improvements have made work much easier and allowed us to produce work in a far more effective manner, artificial intelligence will further help us become more productive, and relieve us of dull and dreary tasks.

Title image "Yawn" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by  luca.sartoni