Superhuman Work: The Real Link between AI and Reshaping Work
The topic of AI is everywhere, no matter how much you try to avoid it. It’s all over the news, filling every feed of social media, and even at the weekend it’s coming up in conversations at the dinner table. It’s unavoidable.
I’m no techie. In fact, my preferred method for most things is still analog. I like the proper old fashioned pen to paper over most digital apps. So, while AI is something I may never fully understand, I am aware that I have to learn what I can if I’m going to be able to adapt to what may be the next revolution in our human history.
If like me, you’re teetering on the edge of AI, perhaps dabbling in a little exploration of ChatGPT and wondering through the maze of AI content, then I’m hoping what I share here is going to shed a more realistic light on what we might experience, rather than the doomsday prophecies most media outlets are pedalling.
To give some context, in May I attended an outstanding talk by Maarten Ectors – ‘How AI Will Shape the Future of Work’. Ectors is the former Chief Innovation Officer of Legal & General, a multi-award winning innovator, and an AI and Web3 advisor who currently works with organisations to help embrace these new technologies. To say he knows a thing or two about AI would be putting it lightly.
As you can only imagine, Maarten’s talk was not only informative and stimulating, but created such a vibrant discussion in the room that the event ran well over the designated Q&A time.
For me, this talk was the first where I could envisage exactly how AI may shape the future and work as we know it. And it was also the first time I hadn’t experienced an existential crisis as soon as the word AI was mentioned.
This doesn’t mean to say that this feature has all the answers. Far from it. You may even have more questions. I certainly do. But here I want to help you grasp a more realistic perspective of AI and the link to how we work; and not the Spielberg version.
Here’s what you’ll find below;
– AI: fad or foe – is it worth our mental energy?
– How AI will redesign work
– The ethical question. We can, but should we?
– Where do we go next?
AI: fad or foe - is it worth our mental energy?
Time’s precious and our attention is already split between a myriad of different things – so do any of us really need to be spending what’s left of our mental energy on learning more about AI?
Unfortunately, the big answer is YES.
Yes, if you want to know how your work is going to be impacted over the next ten years.
Yes, if you want to know how this technology will change your children’s lives.
Yes, if you want some choice about how this technology is integrated in wider society.
I must admit. AI right now feels like when you have to do your homework to vote. It feels like a chore, but you know that if you want to have any say or be able to contribute in a meaningful way or understand how policies are going to impact your life; you’ve got to do your homework.
It’s the same with AI. Take anything you do right now. Going to the gym, buying a coffee, taking your children to school. Every interaction and activity could be changed by AI.
So yes, even spending 20 minutes on your lunch break, or just an hour in the evening, learning how AI may change your life could help you in the long run.
“But isn’t it just a fad?”
The reality of this shift is greater than some of the other technologies we’ve seen in recent years, and that’s because unbeknownst to many of us, AI is already being used, just not to the extent that it could be in the future.
It’s true that we’ve been wooed by many potential revolutions in the past; virtual reality and meta are two that come to mind. Which means it’s easy for many of us to ignore AI as another one to dismiss and file in the fads bin. But there are two key things to realise with AI which make it more of a realistic addition to our lives.
The first being that AI and algorithms have already been used and are being used long before the emergence of ChatGPT. The best way to think of ChatGPT is like the supermarket version; it’s available off the shelf for everyone and is a watered-down version to the high-powered AI’s being used by major corporations. Organisations such as Google, Meta (Facebook), Apple and the like have been using AI under our noses long before it became consumer friendly.
ChatGPT isn’t anything to be worried about. To give it some oversimplification for us less tech folk, ChatGPT right now is a glorified Ask Jeeves (if anyone can remember that). It gives you answers and can create very well as it contains the entirety of any content that has ever been produced on the internet. However, it needs someone with a brain in front of it to ask the right questions. So, it’s truly not as ‘clever’ as everyone is making out. It still requires human input.
It’s not really ChatGPT and other gimmicky AI tools we should be focussing our attention on. These will come and go just like the apps on our iPhones, fun for a while until rendered useless. It’s the machine learning large corporations are developing that we will never come to fully grasp because they’re being planted into our lives without our consent and most dangerously without regulation.
For example, Amazon’s machine learning system which taught itself that male candidates were preferable. Or Uber’s facial identification software which indirectly caused racial discrimination by denying use of its app by drivers and couriers of non-white ethnicities, and therefore their access to work.
This is the true AI we need to be taking stock of, where machines are used in place of human decision making, but are ultimately wired to be inadvertently unfair, biased and discriminatory.
AI is both fad and foe. There will be the apps and gimmicks that lure us into having some harmless fun. But there are also serious AI developments which could render jobs obsolete, companies void of humans, and robots commonplace.
As my friend Colin Newlyn put it in his weekly Decrapify Work Newsletter, “I’m not saying AI won’t have an impact. In fact, it is already. It could be enormously beneficial, augmenting the skills we have to produce better outcomes at scale, such as in areas like medical diagnosis and drug development. It could also be deeply harmful, enabling propaganda and the surveillance state and ‘baking in’ existing biases in our society. Or it could just give us vending machines that can cook and deliver the perfect pizza every time. Let’s just wait and see, shall we?”
Hungry for the real
To bring you back down to some normalcy, I want to bring your awareness back to being human.
A theme that stimulated a lot of discussion among the attendees after Maarten’s talk was around our human need for connection. Real human to human connection. Not the connections made on LinkedIn or other social media. But that deep sense of feeling seen, heard, and understood. Eyeball to eyeball, in-person socialising.
We might try to replace that with AI. We’ve already tried it with social media, dating apps and even friendship platforms. But as we all know it’s not the same, and as much as we might like to believe that it is, it isn’t. You can’t fake humanness (yet).
The point raised was that the younger generations who have already been brought up around technology are missing human connection and longing for spaces, and reasons to meet up in-person. But they don’t know how to, or where to go. There’s an entire generation who have socialised online and are now desperate to socialise in the real world.
This is where I feel the nuance of this AI adoption hasn’t been aired. We’re all so focussed on believing we’re going to adopt it blindly. Which yes, there will be some instances where we don’t even know AI is present. But we forget that we also have a choice. Even right now, I can decide whether I want to meet a friend online for a zoom coffee, or jump in the car and go to meet them in-person.
Our desire for human connection will never wane. It is instinctively built in us. Therefore, we must not forget that while AI may replace some things, it can’t replace our need for each other.
As tech overtakes our lives and our work, the hunger for the real will only grow.
How AI will Redesign work
‘AI and work’ is both exciting and fear inducing all at the same time. It’s a paradox we’re grappling with because on one hand, there’s a glimmer of hope that we’re finally going to be working smarter, not harder. And then on the other hand, it takes away all hope with fears that our jobs and careers may be completely taken away from us. One hand gives while the other takes away. Which it will be no-one truly knows.
However, there were a few predictions and insights from Maarten’s talk that put me more in the excited camp when it comes to how we may work. So, let me dig into these here;
Specialism of work
Funnily enough Maarten shared how the days of doing the same thing for 8 hours straight won’t exist anymore. After all, we’ll now have robots to do those boring, repetitive tasks or things that require lots of data analysis.
The prediction is, that instead we will be using other skills and attributes to work and contribute to wider society. Maarten’s had a fun take on this with a “Netflix for Work” idea. In the future, we might just log on to a system which knows our skills and talents, and lets us know what work is available today if we feel like it. We will get micro experiences of work where we get to choose how and when we contribute.
Of course, this sounds like something out of a utopian sci-fi film. But part of this is already emerging, so personally I don’t feel like we’re too far away from this. For example, the gig economy has already boomed in recent years, as well as progressive organisations adopting a shorter work week, and choosing roles over positions or titles. In some of the most radical organisations, people are already choosing the roles they hold and how they work. Which means it really isn’t that extreme to believe we’ll all be working on a”Netflix for Work” system in the future.
Micro organisations and the acceleration of DAOs
The large companies and organisations that we’ve become accustomed to may no longer exist in the future. The ‘bigger is better’ ideal that drove growth and world domination during our past, will be replaced entirely by smaller entities or even DAOs (Decentralised Autonomous Organisations) which are primarily managed by AI.
More outsourcing will occur, which is nothing new, but that outsourcing will probably go to a robot or some kind of AI. Again, something that’s already happened and happening in large corporations.
I’m afraid to say, even management is at risk of the emergence of algorithmic tools. Need to make a decision, a CEO doesn’t need to do that. The AI has the information and can make the call. Don’t for a second think that AI is just another glamorous industrial revolution where the top were untouchable. AI puts into question EVERY job role in a company, white and blue collar workers included.
If you’re still with me, and I haven’t scared you away from AI yet. Here’s some mild relief.
A striking conclusion from Maarten’s talk is, “our complete way of organising work and enterprise in general is not ready for this.” And I couldn’t agree more.
The heavy, top-down, bureaucratic organisations that have become commonplace in our world of work cannot adapt to what AI is bringing. Which means these companies either need to change the way they work or make way for competition that is going to be far more adaptable. It’s truly a change or be changed situation.
The need for agility, hammers home the fact that we need to be reinventing the system of work; flattening organisations, breaking down bureaucracy, decentralising decision-making, utilising all of people’s skills and talents, and above all, leaning into greater purpose in our work. If the robots can take away the mundane, we can make time for work that matters.
The ethical question. We can, but should we?
We can’t talk about AI without the ethical question coming up. We can do certain things with AI, and in the future, there will be many things we can do, but should we?
Unfortunately, the ethical question won’t be one that many organisations consider. I can’t imagine it’s one that enters the brains of Elon or Bezos. Especially when it means they can quadruple their profits and cut their losses. Humans being the biggest expense of most businesses.
So that leaves us with big questions;
Where will jobs come from?
How do we create more if the robots take it?
And what’s stopping companies from sacking everyone?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, and I don’t think anyone does. There are ideas out there, predictions, but none of us will ever know until we get there.
It’s a fact that companies will use AI as a reason to cull people. It’s already started. But what I hope for is emerging start-ups and companies that embrace both technology and people to shape a better future. After all, we have done a pretty good job of destroying our home planet, so perhaps we can finally put some effort into saving it.
And let’s not ignore many of the theorists who believe that a Universal Basic Income will come into place. This isn’t radical, but realistic. Finland had a successful experiment to inform UBI pre-covid, and many have forgotten the highly successful UBI experiment which took place in the small town of Dauphin, rural Canada in 1974. All cases which prove UBI may be in our future.
Just as I was about to hit publish on this article, I was notified that the UK government intends to roll out a Universal Basic Income experiment across England for two years.
The future could be coming faster than many of us realise.
Where do we go from here?
Ominous feelings aside, you might be wondering where do we go from here? Is there an action we can take or something, (anything) that can make us all feel less at the will of AI.
My advice from me to you is the same as what I prescribed earlier. Get in the know, or as far into the know as you can. A few things that may help you on your way;
The Economist April 2023 Edition: AI
As a company or organisation, my advice to you is to get talking about AI. Don’t let this become another thing you ignore because you’re fearful about how people might react. Start creating a dialogue; make the unknown known.
As put in The Economist’s Essay on AI, “Technology need not be world-ending to be world-changing.”
Now is the time to co-create the adoption of AI together, to choose and decide how you want to embrace this technology.