Anything you can doOn 18 Sep 2001 in Personnel Today Previous Article Next Article Related posts:No related photos. Comments are closed. … a computer can do just as well – at least, if you believe thepredictions, it soon will, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence. Andit could have a profound and surprising impact on the role of HR. Jane LewisreportsAI – artificial intelligence as opposed to insemination – is suddenly backas a talking point. In fact, it probably has not loomed so large in the publicconsciousness since the days of Metal Mickey and K9. Even if you managed tobypass the recent children’s craze for robotic pets (including a particularlygruesome, “intelligent” giant scorpion as well as morerun-of-the-mill dogs and cats) you’re unlikely to escape the influence of thisautumn’s $90m blockbuster: Spielberg’s A.I: Artificial Intelligence. Best described as a kind of futurist’s Pinocchio, AI recounts the adventuresof a robot child that has been programmed to love. What he wants most, ofcourse, is to become a proper human child. Equally predictably, the baddies ofthe piece are also human – so paranoid about being usurped by more intelligent”mechas” or robots that their only mission is to destroy him. Preoccupations in fiction often reflect what is going on in real life, andAI is no exception. The tech market may be in the grips of the worst downturnit has ever seen but a substantial chunk of any spare capital still floatingaround is now being channelled in this direction. The industry is building onold foundations: the development of AI (aka “intelligent softwareagents”, “softbots” or “expert systems”) was once ahotbed of development talent, generally considered the next Big Thing in theindustry. But it got shoved on the back-burner following the sudden onslaughtof the communications revolution and the Internet. Now a new generation of systems is evolving and futurologists claim we willshortly witness a new wave of AI applications – this time heavily boosted bythe leap forward in communications technology. Intelligent systems will nolonger be standalone entities, so much as networked “agents”, capableof intelligently interacting with other agents and people. The momentum is such that even Japan, a nation currently ground down byeconomic misery, continues to lead the field in robot “pets”, capableof understanding simple verbal instructions, running households and monitoringsecurity. BT’s leading futurologist, Dr Ian Pearson thinks it likely that thesemobile “pets” will feature radio links to a smart computer elsewherein the house and that these devices will become common by about 2010. Systems are certainly getting cleverer in leaps and bounds. We areperiodically startled by their growing prowess in different fields – mostnotably, perhaps, in the ongoing battle of wits between Kasparov and IBM’schess wizard Deep Blue. Futurologists predict that computers will have matchedhuman intelligence by about 2015. But it is clear that in some fields they are already steaming ahead. Earlierthis summer, developers at Hewlett-Packard’s Bristol research centre surprisedeven themselves by creating a robot that outperformed six of the City’s beststock-market experts in a head-to-head joust. The most galling thing about the exercise is that they were not even reallytrying. According to Dave Cliff, who devised the experiment, the”bots” were programmed to be the simplest possible example of a robottrader, with the smallest amount of intelligence. He was highly sceptical abouttheir chances of coming out on top. “I never planned for them tooutperform humans,” he says. In fact, it is becoming obvious that computers are leading the waythroughout the money markets as a whole – both increasing the volume of tradeand the speed with which transactions are undertaken. We may be languishing ina bear market but figures show that the number of stocks and shares exchangedon Nasdaq one supposedly sluggish Friday afternoon this July exceeded the dailyrecord of the boom two years ago. In many ways this is down to a phenomenon of supply and demand thatenvironmental engineers call “induced traffic” – the more capacityyou build to ease congestion, the higher the overall rate of traffic becomes.And the faster computers become, the more they rule out the possibility ofeffective human competition. No human – not even a super-trader – can respondquickly enough in an environment in which heavily traded stocks such asMicrosoft and Intel routinely change value several times a second. But acomputer, programmed to follow certain rules on risk and price, can clean up. The human consequences of this are already apparent: once the programminghas been accomplished, the job is done. “A lot of what we’re doing is justwatching machines talk to other machines,” says one trader. Two othersspent the afternoon desultorily tossing a football back and forth. Back atNasdaq’s computer nerve centre, meanwhile, a solitary technician sat back andsupervised the movement of millions. If the outlook looks gloomy for City traders, the same is true across thespectrum of white-collar work as the next phase of AI – the automation of”mental” work – begins to kick in. Given that this is how 80 per centof us spend our gainful working hours, future prospects look interesting, tosay the least. We have already seen the impact that non-intelligent systems – typicallythose handling routine administrative tasks – has had on the workplace.”We can administrate faster and more effectively using electronic toolsthan we ever could using clerical intermediaries,” says BT’s Pearson. And the same is true of the entire product cycle. According to US think-tankthe World Future Society, the entire design and marketing cycle – idea,invention, innovation and imitation – in companies is continuing to shrinksteadily. As late as the 1940s, the product cycle stretched to 30-40 years.Today it seldom lasts 30-40 weeks. If automating routine tasks alone can achieve such widespread change on thecorporate landscape, imagine the impact that systems designed to mimic humanintelligence – in all its myriad forms – will have. The clear implication, saysPearson, is that large numbers of managerial and professional jobs are next inthe line of fire. And if your job is not actually eliminated completely, youcan bet that some of the “unique” skills and experience you bring toit will be. Who is likely to be affected first? According to the World Future Society,by 2005 expert systems incorporating robotics, machine vision, voicerecognition, speech synthesis and electronic data processing will be commonacross all industries, incorporating every sector from health services throughinsurance underwriting, law enforcement, travel, energy prospecting and whateveraspects of manufacturing and design that have not already been taken over byrobots. But the greatest change of all will come in the structure of futurecommercial institutions, which – thanks to AI – will bear very littleresemblance to their original forms, says Pearson. “We will move fromtraditional companies with management and workers, to virtual companies withcore management and project teams only.” Smart technology will ensure that these new-look, sparsely populatedcompanies will be lithe and highly adaptive – capable of being re-jigged anddisbanded at the drop of a hat to take advantage of the emerging market nichestheir super-sensitive expert systems have identified for them. The overalleffect will be to “generally disintermediate” the entire managementinfrastructure of a company” says Pearson. Some companies won’t be neededat all. It will be an environment in which the élite will thrive – often working forseveral companies at a time for high rewards. But the bulk of people will ineffect become commodity items, with a global supplier base. Nonetheless, the democratising aspect of systems means there will also beroom for some plodders – at least in the early days. Smart systems mean that asemi-educated clerk will be able to perform many of the functions previouslyreserved for professionals. And because budding entrepreneurs will not have toworry about all the administrative functions entailed in managing staff, itwill also be much easier to set up companies, says London Business Schoolresearch fellow, David Cannon. “AI means computers can learn very quicklyhow you are and how you operate, and adopt systems to match,” he says Almost certainly AI will also lead to enormous boosts in productivity. Infact, says Pearson, “It will go through the roof – so we will all be muchwealthier”. But the question hanging in the air, especially if you are anHR professional, is what on earth will happen to all those large numbers ofhumans who will no longer be needed to operate the productive side of theeconomy? More to the point, how do you decide which individuals and roles toretain, and which to consign to the scrapheap? Clearly in the first stages of the cycle, demand for engineers andtechnicians – as well as for computer-literate managers – is likely to growexponentially. But it is easy to predict a scenario in the not-too-distantfuture where even these “knowledge workers” in effect program them-selves into redundancy by creating electronic Frankensteins capable ofprogramming, regenerating and improving themselves indefinitely. In the long term, therefore, the only skills worth honing if you aredetermined to stay in the workplace (rather than sloping off to enjoy yourselfon the back of the predicted AI-inspired productivity boom) will be those leastcapable of being replicated by computer. “We’ll need a few ‘ideascreators’ and a few ‘assimilators’ to package their ideas into useful anddesirable products,” says Pearson airily. And it’s difficult to envisage ascenario in which expert human marketers will not be necessary – until, thatis, computers learn to experience and convey emotion. But the really irreplaceable jobs will be those majoring on intensely human,interpersonal attributes which involve caring and empathy. In the barren landscapeof a grey electro-world, these kind of skills will be like gold dust, saysPearson. And we will be prepared to pay a premium for them. “We will valuethe human as a human, not as a cog in the machine,” he says. Machines will liberate people to cope with much higher value transactions,aimed primarily at making life more pleasant. But we will pay through the nosefor such luxuries. According to one pundit, the time will come when dining in arestaurant, on food hand-cooked and served by humans, will be the ultimate inhigh living. Pearson believes that as technology gradually automates much of theintellectual side of work, people will find alternative channels for theirbrain power and competitive instincts. One prediction is that community activitywill become a much more important facet of life as people try to impose someorder on all those long, leisure-strewn hours. A possible result, he says, is that people may begin to form their sense ofidentity from their place and relationships in the community rather than fromtheir job – a process, one might argue, that is already well underway in thecelebrity industry. Taken to its logical conclusion, then, the shift into the AI era willclearly have a profound impact on almost every aspect of society and theeconomy – and on how our institutions are structured and run. Be prepared toturn current ideas about the status quo upside down. A good example Pearson cites is healthcare. At present the group at the topof the pecking order – both in terms of status and reward – are those who canboast the greatest expertise and experience, typically consultants andsurgeons. “But expert judgement and high precision accuracy willeventually become redundant skills, because they will lie firmly in the machinedomain”, he says. So who will be the new high earners? Those currently at the bottom of thepile – the nurses and carers whose intuitive actions and tender brow-moppingscannot be machine-replicated. From this perspective, as Pearson points out,”The current practice of sending nurses on degree courses is completelythe wrong direction to take.” The HR profession could be said to be equally short-sighted, as it tries toshed its role as hand-holding people in favour of areas such as generalstrategy and business management. But the ability to get the best out of peoplewill be huge in the new economy, says Cannon at London Business School. A highly symbolic change will be the way people interact with each other, hesays. “When people in this highly automated, virtual world actually meet,it will be something really big. That’s going to force greater pressure onpeople. “There will be a new kind of networking – not about informationswapping so much as “whether I can trust you or whether we have some kindof mutual benefit,” he adds. “The pressure on leadership will changeto emphasise areas like this ability to inspire trust.” Pearson is the first to admit that the new world order he outlines –particularly the elimination of all but a few people from most of the businesscycle – may seem difficult to get to grips with. But similarly strange thingshave happened before. As he points out, “If you’d told someone in the1920s that 80 per cent of the entire economy would be based on services by theend of the century, they would not have believed you.” So what sort of timescale are we looking at? The replacement of theinformation economy by the “care economy” will begin in earnestbetween 2015 and 2020, predicts Pearson – just at the point when AI broadlyapproaches the human equivalent. That should give you enough time to dust offthose lucrative tea-and-sympathy skills. Just make sure you don’t forget aspare clean hanky.