Human touch: How to futureproof your career against AI

By Andrew Bell, Head of Public Sector

Perhaps the single-biggest technology talking point of 2016 was Artificial Intelligence (AI). It entered the cultural mainstream with a stream of successful films and TV shows: Ex Machina, Westworld, Humans etc. Big consumer tech companies are bringing virtual assistants into our homes with voice-activated speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home. And across the business world, there was a big drive for efficiency using cognitive computing in the form of chatbots, algorithmic agents and services such as IBM Watson (seeking new thrills after beating human contestants to the $1m prize on Jeopardy!).

But in 2017, we – the people – remain largely unaffected. In fact, according to renowned futurologist, Dr Graeme Codrington, who we spoke to recently about the top trends for Enterprise in 2017, “robots aren’t going to replace people in the next 12 months and probably not in the next 12 years either”.

Despite the doom and gloom reported in some circles about the impact of AI on the jobs market, there’s a strong counter-perspective that recognises – and celebrates – the uniqueness of us as humans.  As Graeme explains, while machines may in time “replace the analytical, diagnostic and empirical aspects of work. What they cannot replace is the empathetic, intuitive, caring and creative aspects of our jobs.”

What this means is that we’ll likely see a “human-hybrid” workforce begin to emerge. Organisations will start adapting their operating models to a) take advantage of machine automation and b) make the most of human qualities.

No one can predict the future 100% of course, but certain trends are clear. Machines are becoming established as more reliable and more efficient than humans in many areas of work. Not just heavy-lifting roles either; not just robotic arms on a construction line. We now have virtual bots living on servers that can repeat administrative tasks, again and again, with zero margin for error.

For Graeme, it’s somewhat pointless for people to battle against this – because organisations will always pursue automation if it yields efficiency benefits and revenue gains. Instead, we should start preparing for the inevitable. We should be futureproofing ourselves. And there are two simple questions that he suggests we ask:

  • “Which aspects of my job can machines do better than me?”

AI combines big data with hugely powerful computational analysis to speed through tasks, quickly, accurately and at massive scale. If your job entails following a process, or involves looking at data to find a solution, chances are AI could do it better than you.

Graeme gives an example from healthcare, where IBM Watson is collecting masses of medical data from across the globe and finding correlations that no medical professional could ever have the time to unearth. “Is there really any value in a doctor reading medical journals anymore”, he ponders, “when a machine can make instant diagnoses informed by all the medical data the world can offer?”

By recognising the reality of where AI is going, and what impacts it will have on specific job roles, we can focus our professional efforts in more worthwhile areas. We’ll spend less time trying to master skills that a machine will be better at anyway, and it will lead us to focus on the second important question:

  • Which areas of my job are where I add the most value?

Let’s continue with the example of the doctor. AI is not going to put them out of a job. It means they’ll spend more time focusing on aspects of their role that the machine can’t handle. The human aspects, the patient care, the bits that probably attracted them to the profession in the first place.

Identifying what machines do best will help us identify what people do best. And then we can focus our professional development in those areas. As Graeme suggests, we should be spending more time honing our “soft skills”, and less on technical training.

This ties in nicely with another current trend: customer experience. When booking a train ticket online, for example, customers want to see all journey options and prices, and they want an intuitive system that remembers previously entered details. That demand is perfectly served by automation. But when a customer is sat on the platform, wondering why their train hasn’t arrived, it will always be the living breathing human they turn to for answers. There will always be a balance.

From our perspective at O2, the future of work looks refreshingly optimistic when viewed through this human-hybrid lens. Artificial Intelligence and robotic automation will no doubt have a huge role to play in the workplace, but it feels like the negative impacts on people’s jobs are likely to have been overblown.

“I don’t think we’ll be seeing significant job losses any time soon,” says Graeme, “certainly not before the next decade. Which gives us a great opportunity to shape what people will be doing in the long term. I believe this will be rooted in the human touch; that innate empathy and intuition we have that can pick up on emotions and respond to people accordingly. Machines are still a long way off from replicating that.”

Discover more insights from our conversation with Dr Graeme Codrington by downloading The 2017 futurist forecast.