Time for a Grown-Up Conversation on AI: The Future Demands It

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If you have seen me present recently – or even spoken to me for more than a few minutes, you’ve probably heard me go on about how the AI discussions need to change!  At the moment, most senior executives, board rooms, governments, think tanks and tech evangelists are running around screaming with their hands on their ears when it comes to the impact of AI on jobs and society.

We are constantly being bombarded with the message that AI will help make knowledge workers more productive.  AI won’t take people’s jobs – in fact it will help to create new jobs – you get the drift; you’ve been part of these conversations!

I was at an event recently where a leading cloud provider had a huge slide with the words: “Humans + AI Together” in large font across the screen. They then went on to demonstrate an opportunity for AI. In a live demo, they had the customer of a retailer call a store to check for stock of a dress. The call was handled by an AI solution, which engaged in a natural conversation with the customer. It verified their identity, checked dress stock at the store, processed the order, and even confirmed the customer’s intent to use their stored credit card.

So, in effect, on one slide, the tech provider emphasised that AI was not going to take our jobs, and two minutes later they showed how current AI capabilities could replace humans – today!

At an analyst event last week, representatives from three different tech providers told analysts how Microsoft Copilot is freeing up 10-15 hours a week. For a 40-hour work week, that’s a 25-38 time saving. In France (where the work week is 35 hours), that’s up to 43% of their time saved. So, by using a single AI platform, we can save 25-43% of our time – giving us the ability to work on other things.

What are the Real Benefits of AI?

The critical question is: What will we do with this saved time? Will it improve revenue or profit for businesses? AI might make us more agile, faster, more innovative but unless that translates to benefits on the bottom line, it is pointless. For example, adopting AI might mean we can create three times as many products. However, if we don’t make any more revenue and/or profit by having three times as many products, then any productivity benefit is worthless. UNLESS it is delivered through decreased costs.

We won’t need as many humans in our contact centres if AI is taking calls. Ideally, AI will lead to more personalised customer experiences – which will drive less calls to the contact centre in the first place! Even sales-related calls may disappear as personal AI bots will find deals and automatically sign us up. Of course, AI also costs money, particularly in terms of computing power. Some of the productivity uplift will be offset by the extra cost of the AI tools and platforms.

Many benefits that AI delivers will become table stakes. For example, if your competitor is updating their product four times a year and you are updating it annually, you might lose market share – so the benefits of AI might be just “keeping up with the competition”. But there are many areas where additional activity won’t deliver benefits. Organisations are unlikely to benefit from three times more promotional SMSs or EDMs and design work or brand redesigns.

I also believe that AI will create new roles. But you know what? AI will eventually do those jobs too. When automation came to agriculture, workers moved to factories. When automation came to factories, workers moved to offices. The (literally) trillion-dollar question is where workers go when automation comes to the office.

The Wider Impact of AI

The issue is that very few senior people in businesses or governments are planning for a future where maybe 30% of jobs done by knowledge workers go to AI. This could lead to the failure of economies. Government income will fall off a cliff. It will be unemployment on levels not seen since the great depression – or worse. And if we have not acknowledged these possible outcomes, how can we plan for it?

This is what I call the “grown up conversation about AI”. This is acknowledging the opportunity for AI and its impacts on companies, industries, governments and societies. Once we acknowledge these likely outcomes we can plan for it.

And that’s what I’ll discuss shortly – look out for my next Ecosystm Insight: The Three Possible Solutions for AI-driven Mass Unemployment.

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