Artificial intelligence is becoming ubiquitous. What does this imply for human work?

hoverfalt-600Artificial intelligence (AI) can be broadly divided into general and applied, or strong and weak, respectively. Strong AI refers to the ability of a machine to perform ”general intelligent action” while weak AI focuses on one narrow task, such as speech recognition. While strong AI is advancing with various speculative implications, such as technological singularity and related concern from prominent thinkers like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, it is weak AI that is changing the world around us as we speak. It has the potential to radically change human work and contribution, but this change is gradual and largely invisible in the short run.


One useful context in which to think about AI is its contribution to and impact on human work and thus business. To do this, lets quickly recap the previous major change in this context.


Humans have used tools since the stone age. These tools were powered by humans until we learned how to domesticate animals, such as donkeys, horses and oxen, to contribute power. The tools evolved but this yielded only incremental improvements in productivity. It was not until the industrial revolution that productivity took a massive leap.


During the industrial revolution, human and animal labor was initially replaced by the steam engine and later by electrical power. This proved to be very significant for one specific reason. As electricity evolved into the commodity we know today – standardized, affordable and available everywhere and all the time – power essentially became ubiquitous. It became the de facto source of power for whatever we might invent. Today, very little human work involves contributing power, which not only eases humans from tiring labor, but enables new forms of higher human contribution.


AI is following the same trajectory to becoming ubiquitous. One example is Amazon Machine Learning, launched in April 2015, which offers pattern recognition and prediction in real-time on an hourly basis. In effect, AI, although still at a very basic level, is affordable and available everywhere and all the time. Much like electricity worked its way to powering practically everything, AI is working its way to controlling everything. It is still at a very early stage, but advancing fast. Google’s and Uber’s driverless cars are just one example of the tasks AI is on the verge of taking over from humans. In essence, artificial intelligence is doing to cognitive operation what electricity did to physical labor.


As founding executive editor of Wired magazine Kevin Kelly puts it, the first major revolution of human work was about adding power to existing tools, the next is about adding intelligence to these tools. This is where we are likely to see the next massive leaps in productivity and opportunities for work to rise even higher in human cognitive contribution.


Finally, to understand the potential long-term impact of AI, we should look beyond its current implications and focus on what the underlying technology fundamentally enables. The rising tide of automation and AI is more about the swell and less about the ripples.


We will discuss the impact of technology and AI on work and business at the Finsif seminar on October 13.

Olof Hoverfält
Director, Business Design
olof.hoverfalt @