Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Looking into the future - Right through Automation & Artificial Intelligence

Its no secret that Innovation & creativity is the ultimate source of competitive advantage. But success of any innovative idea depends on a number of other factors: An energetic leadership, Market growth, Significant investments pool, and a real "can do" spirit of the team.

As I write this article, there are thousands of articles being published on web - which state how robots and Artificial Intelligence will replace humans in workforce.

  1. McDonald's is testing a new restaurant run completely by Robots 
  2. Robot lands a Plane. 
  3. Driverless Trucks will eliminate millions of jobs  
  4. Smart Machines will cause mass unemployment  
  5. Google's AI beats world Go champion in first of five matches  

Today's news is filled with the hype and fear of mass unemployment due to Automation. Today the hype cycle is almost at its zenith and in this background, I was asked to talk about what kind of jobs & employment opportunities will be there in future.

How automation will help mankind?

Automation is actually an innate feature of mankind. If we look into our past, we as a species have always come up with creative innovation to automate mundane tasks, and every time we did this, the civilization progressed by leaps and bounds.

The first ever automation was creation of canal system - thereby automating the transportation of water. This led to the rise of early civilizations in Indus River valley, Egypt, Babylon & China. Since then, civilization has been making a steady progress to automate simple, repetitive tasks.

Simple machines replaced human labor, trains & cars replaced horse drawn carts, Computers replaced clerks, and the list goes on and on.

From all our learning's, we know that if a task can be automated, it will be automated. There is no way a civilization will be able to stop automation. People have no pleasure in doing repetitive labor and the society will promote automation. Period!

And Yes, Today, People are being replaced by algorithms, machines and artificial intelligence.

What shall humans do?

As automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics grow in capability, humans doing simple, repetitive jobs will be pushed out of their jobs. So what will humans do?

The answer to this question can be found in history. When canals were invented, farmers found themselves with more time on their hands to increase the land area under cultivation. This led to more food production and this freed up people to create some of early classics of literature. Ramayana, Mahabaratha, Upanishads etc. were written during this time. People built massive temples, pyramids, palaces, forts, statues etc.

Industrial revolution also led to an explosion in arts - mainly paintings, writing of novels, poems, sculpture, building of palaces, classical music etc.

In 20th century and early 21 century, automation led to more creativity in terms of space travel, adventures, film making, music and new machines.

All this points towards only one direction. When humans are freed up from mundane tasks, they will use their free time to harness their creative potential.

Humans are innately creative. Machines, computers & Robots are not creative. Humans are far more creative and this creativity cannot be reduced into an algorithm & automated. This implies that the new generation of humans who are trained to be engineers, doctors, scientists and artists etc. will dream up new things to do, build and explore. Perhaps we may discover how to travel faster than light.

How to prepare for the new future?

The current education system is designed to create a workforce of yesterday, and people who do mundane, repetitive tasks and this education system will have to change first. We as a civilization will have to train the younger generation to be creative, develop expansive & divergent thinking. We need to nurture and flourish the creative side of humans and this will free up the younger generation to be creative and innovative.

Modern workplaces also have to change in a big way. Traditional hierarchical top down management system which pigeonhole people into narrow jobs need to be revamped. Silos need to be broken up and creative ideas must be fast tracked as quickly as possible. Businesses must be willing to take risks on new ideas. For example, Ford Motors recently fired its CEO - even after record breaking sales - because Ford as a business now needs a new business models - far from the one of building cars.

Cost of Failure - A major war & conflict

History also tells us the dark side of automation. Whenever automation ushered in a new era, lot of people had too much free time and when this was not utilized in a positive way, humans resorted to war and violence.

In fact, both world wars were in a way caused by industrial revolution. Industrialized European countries had surplus human labor and young population which had nothing much to do and the countries rushed headlong into a catastrophic war.

Today, we are seeing a massive surge in terrorism from people in Middle East and Pakistan. This is because their governments have failed to utilize their workforce in productive ways. Similarly, USA & China have increased their military spending in recent times - as they are not able to channel their enormous economic resources towards creative work.

Closing Thoughts 

We as a civilization are at the cusp of a new revolution - ushered by Automation & AI. Will this result in a golden era of creativity & innovation or will it result in a catastrophic war?

I cannot predict the future, but I know for sure that if we invest in building a creative & innovative society - we can usher in a golden era, else we are doomed for a devastating war. 

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