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The future of work: Building a more productive and prosperous society with AI

By Bryan McLachlan, Managing Director: Africa at CyborgIntell            

Economists, ethicists and technologists have debated what artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) will mean for human workers as long as the technologies have been around. But in the wake of the publicity around the impressive capabilities and rapid adoption of commoditised generative AI tools like ChatGPT, the debate has taken on even more urgency.

Many commentators voice fears that AI tools threaten to displace humans from their jobs, leading to higher unemployment. One report from Goldman Sachs says that AI could potentially automate 25% of the entire labour market, including 46% of tasks in administrative jobs, 44% of legal jobs and 37% of architecture and engineering professions.

Automation: the historical perspective

But what’s missing from this discussion is the acknowledgement that technology has been displacing jobs for hundreds of years—without causing mass unemployment. Indeed, the Industrial Revolution ushered in a new era of human prosperity, although handloom weavers and other workers were anxious about getting replaced by mechanised processes.

Since then, machines have taken over many mundane, repetitive tasks that used to drain so much of our time. As they’ve done so, they’ve enabled us to become more productive and efficient, improving quality of life into the bargain. Automation has, for example, made most products and services cheaper and more accessible to the mass market.

A hundred years ago, an accountant would do most calculations on a cumbersome adding machine and write transactions in a paper ledger. Today, accountants use cloud software to capture transactions and do the math. This hasn’t made them redundant but freed up their time to focus on solving business problems in a strategic manner.

Likewise, digital marketing didn’t exist until 20 years ago, but it’s now a thriving industry that employs thousands of people. In the early years of this discipline, digital marketers would’ve spent a lot of their time capturing data, writing HTML code and formatting emails. Today, those tasks are automated and marketers can focus on how best to engage customers.

AI’s role in augmenting human capabilities

As these examples show, automated technologies tend to augment human capabilities rather than replace humans. This will be the case with AI, too. Some of the most ground-breaking work is happening behind the scenes at large enterprises like banks and insurance companies, where AI is helping to free human workers from a range of mundane tasks.

In call centres, for example, AI-powered voice assistants and chatbots can take care of routine queries and transactions. Human agents can focus on more complex and valuable tasks—often with attended automation and AI tools on their desktop that provide them with insights that help them serve customers better.

Another example is the use of AI to rapidly build and deploy machine learning models. Most data scientists in financial institutions are overworked because there is a shortage of skills. They spend a lot of their time on tasks like cleansing data and testing and deploying ML models. Much of this work is boring and error prone, and only 10% of their time is devoted to creative problem-solving.

Automation frees data scientists’ time up to focus on addressing more business problems faster and at scale. With the help of AI, data scientists can free up 50-70% of their time to work on more interesting and challenging problems, making their jobs more rewarding. This also enables them to dedicate more of their capacity to solve problems for the business and its customers.

Automation in banking: saving a trillion dollars over the next five years

Over the next few years, usage of AI in banking and insurance could create significant positive spin-offs for society and customers. Financial institutions will, for example, be able to manage fraud more effectively and more accurately predict who will pay back loans. This could help them open financial services to people who were previously excluded.

More efficient processes will enable banks and insurers to generate significant cost-savings, which they can pass to customers in the form of lower premiums and charges. By some estimates, automation will save a trillion dollars over the next five years in the banking sector alone. AI can also speed up processes such as opening accounts and processing claims, improving the customer experience.

All of this is not to say that there won’t be some disruption in the years ahead. Employers and workers alike will need to think carefully about the importance of constantly upskilling and reskilling to keep pace with a changing landscape. But it’s important to recognise that this technology creates new opportunities, enables humans to do more fulfilling work, and will help us build a more productive and prosperous society.

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