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January 10, 2017updated 11 Jan 2017 11:56am

The business reality of AI and robots

Experts warn of the threat posed by super-intelligent machines, but what does this new era of automation mean for the future of work as we know it?

By Ellie Burns

Earlier this year, the Japanese office of advertising agency McCann Erickson announced a new creative director. The new employee underwent the agency’s traditional welcoming ceremony alongside 11 college graduates. However, McCann’s new creative director wasn’t able to join the post-ceremony celebrations with the rest of the graduates. That’s because it was a robot. Christened “AI-CD beta,” the world’s first artificial intelligence (AI) creative director is the brainchild of McCann’s Millennials taskforce and it has been programmed to provide creative direction for television commercials. Many people saw the news as further proof, were it needed, that the robots are coming and their arrival could have dire repercussions for humans and the future of work. Indeed, at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, The Future of Jobs report estimated that more than five million jobs will be lost by 2020 as a result of developments in AI robotics and other technological changes. Many millions more will be impacted.

So what is the truth of the matter? Should we humans, who are currently gainfully employed, be worried about the rise of the robots or has the danger been overstated? And what does this era of increased automation mean for different industries
around the world?

Ai and robots in business

 Into the mainstream

AI and robots in the workplace are not new. Manufacturers have used automation in factories for many years, but more recently, AI has moved further into mainstream consciousness. The quest to build the world’s first autonomous car is arguably one of the most high-profile examples of this trend, but it is far from isolated. That is why the Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch (BOAML) 2015 global Robot Revolution report estimates that the robot and AI market will be worth US$153 billion by 2020. The impact of this growth on the future workplace could be enormous, particularly where the jobs in question involve routine skills, cognitive or otherwise. In the United States, about one in seven jobs are in transportation, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Therefore, the potential fallout from the introduction of those aforementioned self-driving cars alone could be significant.

Self-driving car technology will become operational within the next decade. Commercial transportation is among the largest employment sectors globally, and the advance of autonomous driving will significantly impact the sector and its workforce in the future.

Transport could be adversely affected more than other sectors by greater adoption of AI technology, but experts believe that few industries will escape unscathed as investment in robotics accelerates.

Estimates on how many jobs will be lost vary quite widely, but a 50 percent reduction of jobs over the next two decades is quite plausible, according to Bart Selman, a professor of computer science at Cornell University. While such projections may seem high, the good news is that some roles will remain relatively unchanged. Jobs that require good interpersonal skills will continue to be valued in addition to roles that require human creativity and problem-solving skills, but anything else—particularly jobs considered to be routine—are at greatest risk from the adoption of AI.

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All sectors are likely to be affected. Innovative actors are now developing “smart” factories, where humans and robots are working together, and adding significant value to the traditional blue-collar positions.

This is also happening to the legal industry. The way we work is already modified by AI performing legal research, document review and generation and smart contracts. This frees our minds for more advanced strategic forward-thinking legal advice, and the rise of the robots itself will necessitate innovative legal approaches

Indeed, robots will also create new disruptive legal issues more widely across a range of sectors. For example, who is responsible in a machine-to-machine accident? How can a robot be liable for harm inflicted on a human? Human intervention will still be needed for some time to untangle these issues—but for how long?


The next big thing?

This projected growing reliance on AI presents opportunities—particularly for investors. In tandem with the greater adoption of AI technology over the last few years, investment in AI companies has risen rapidly. According to research from BOAML, in 2014, around US$2 billion was invested in 322 publicly listed companies that are associated with AI technology. Much of this investment is being led by tech giants like Facebook, Apple and Google, which are snapping up AI startups such as Emotient and DeepMind.

In its Robot Revolution report, BOAML highlights eight entry points for investors wishing to invest in the robots and AI theme: AI (machine learning, deep learning, natural user interfaces); aerospace and defense (including drones); autos and transport; financials; healthcare; industrials; services (domestic); and agriculture and mining.

Goldman Sachs, which has invested heavily in AI technology, believes some of the best opportunities for investors include technologies that can personalise customer engagement by crunching vast amounts of data, AI components for cars that provide assistance in problematic areas like parking, and facial and text analysis tools.

Although all businesses are likely to be affected by AI in some way in the coming years, industries that deal with huge volumes of data and high-value problems, such as healthcare, education and finance, are expected to provide the most fertile investment opportunities. But investors should proceed with caution. The first major round of investment in AI technologies occurred in the 1970s, according to experts, and many of these technologies failed to take off.

Questions also remain about how investments in AI technology—spanning algorithms and data—will be protected in an era where intellectual property protections may be receding, engineers and developers are more mobile, and cyber risks continue to grow. The law is changing, but perhaps not quickly enough. Legal strategies need, where possible, to lead and not lag behind changes in technology.

And human workers needn’t start to worry about the projected “rise of the machines” just yet. Jobs are changing due to technologies such as AI, social media, collaboration and the sharing economy, but similar changes have occurred many times in the past two centuries. According to Ben Shneiderman, a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, the previous public discussions on the issue are preposterous, misguided and counterproductive. Whilst he agrees that automation causes disruption and job displacement, increased expectations for products and services is driven by consumers. I would therefore agree with his hypothesis that the unbounded creativity of individuals, small business leaders and larger corporation managers means that they will be the ones responsible for providing an ever-wider range of products and services, with the help of robots.

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