Are you someone who asks Alexa for a daily flash briefing when you wake up? Do you ask Siri for directions when traveling to a cross-town meeting? Is your daily calendar linked to Cortana or Google Assistant? Answering "yes" to any of these questions puts you squarely in the Tech Enthusiast camp of modern information workers. Tech Enthusiasts embrace artificial intelligence (AI)-powered digital assistants to make their lives easier—but should information workers be worried the AI will take over their jobs?
In just a few years, AI digital assistants have gone from a fanciful sci-fi idea to a broadly-available retail product. But during that protracted "sci-fi idea" phase, AI assistants were most often associated with a subgenre where humans are slaves to cold but intelligent machines in a dystopian future. Although the stories are just fiction, the past three generations have a pop cultural touchstone where AI is the villain. This has created a population in every generation that holds modern Luddite views of AI in contrast to the Tech Enthusiasts. A recent meme perfectly encapsulates the schism between Tech Enthusiasts and modern Luddite thinking:
Modern Luddites have taken to heart all those pop culture warnings against AI over the past three generations. That's why there are some Boomers who fear talking computers named "Hal," Gen Xers worried about killer robots with Austrian accents, and Millennials who can't tell if their lives are real or just a computer simulation (pro tip: the spoon is real). While many believe the moral of these stories is "AI is bad," there is another interpretation that views each story not as sci-fi but as horror. Those fictional stories play on a fear of obsolescence; a theme humans of every generation can recognize: Progress can be frightening.
Progress is not a zero-sum game
For literally centuries, workers have been leery of progress related to job automation. Farm workers worried about the cotton gin, assembly-line workers worried about robots, and now office workers worry that an AI-powered digital assistant like Amazon's Alexa will take their job. But the fears of farmhands and factory workers were unfounded because each of those technological advancements made them more efficient at their jobs. Jobs were not eliminated by technology, they were enhanced. The automation provided by AI and digital assistants will do the same for modern information workers.
For information workers using Microsoft 365 and Office 365, the Cortana digital assistant already does a lot of automation to make you more efficient. Cortana is integrated with your email and calendar in Outlook, which helps you prepare for meetings and remind you where you need to be next so you won't be late. For organizations using SharePoint or the Dynamics 365 customer relationship manager, the Cortana integration automatically pulls helpful information about the co-workers or customers into your meetings, calendars, and emails to ensure you know who the people are you're engaging with and help you nurture better relationships.
A human element
As you can see, there is very little historical evidence to show that AI and digital assistants will be a job killer for information workers. There might be some jobs low-level jobs that AI and digital assistants could replace, but not on a global scale. Remember that it was claimed that the automated teller machine (ATM) would cause a catastrophic loss of human jobs at banks. Yet here we are over fifty years later and there are still human bank tellers in every city and town around the world.
One reason why there are still bank tellers is that some jobs require a human element. These jobs just can't be 100% automated. For information workers, jobs such as project management consulting, software development, and technology implementation (e.g. a companywide installation of Microsoft 365 or some other large enterprise-grade application) is so complex that AI has limited use. As such, AI and digital assistants won't take over information workers' roles in the foreseeable future.
If you doubt that observation, then would you bet a month's pay that in the next couple of years you'll be rolling out a business software solution to an office full of diverse employees just by saying a few words into an Alexa speaker on your desk? There's little chance that an AI-based app can have a robot scooting around the office to efficiently manage and communicate project timelines and dependencies for everyone on a team. And if you do think those are realistic scenarios in the next couple of years, then I encourage you to ask any of the major AI-powered digital assistants to tell you the days of the week in alphabetical order.
(Spoiler alert: None of them can do it and will basically point you to an online wiki that mentions how to alphabetize the days of the week.)
How can AI help your business?
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