Autonomous Intelligence; the machines are coming for your job (part 1)

There’s a lot of talk about artificial intelligence and autonomous everything these days. Even I am not immune to it in my staffing world.

A little while ago, I read an article by a guy who believed Autonomous Trucks were a long, long way off. So far away, that it might as well be never. “Autonomous trucks? Not in your world, not ever…”1 Sure, he’s talking about rural areas, and maybe they will be the later additions to the AI abilities. But it’s coming. And soon.

If you want to be out of business in a few years, listen to this guy’s advice.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at a few predictions that turned out to be equally shortsighted.

“Apple is already dead.”
Nathan Myhrvold, former Microsoft CTO, 1997

“Almost all of the many predictions now being made about 1996 hinge on the Internet’s continuing exponential growth. But I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.”
Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3Com, 1995

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977

https://www.pcworld.com/article/155984/worst_tech_predictions.html?page=2

So here we are, nearing the end of 2017, and Tesla just showed off their new electric trucks with all the AI assist, IBM is making breakthroughs in quantum computing, and Saudi Arabia granted citizenship to Sophia the robot.

What was that about autonomous trucks never being a thing?

The question isn’t if, it’s when. More importantly, how is that going to affect your business? What are you going to have to do to stay competitive? How does this affect your staffing and training?

AI, Automation, Autonomy

Each of these are different. What are they and how can they help your business?

Let’s start with the easiest and oldest of the bunch;

Automation

We are all familiar with this. It’s been around since the industrial revolution. It was the industrial revolution. As soon as mechanized processes took over from humans, we tipped over that edge. What started as steam-powered cotton spinning has turned into the factories that make our knives and forks.

AI – Artificial Intelligence

Loosely, it’s a collection of computer algorithms to crunch data and spit out an answer. We could get into more complicated definitions, but I would have to hire an expert to explain it to me.

These system require large amounts of data to operate and is why so many companies are collecting as much of it as they can.

We see this in companies like Spotify, Netflix, and Amazon which use their AI systems to suggest content to you.

Autonomous

Where the rubber hits the road.

This is the combination of AI and Automation let machines decide what they are going to do, based on non-programmed data. Like the driverless trucks.

The robots are coming

Already, there are staffing companies that are using bots to not only screen incoming resumes, but also do preliminary interviews with candidates. The whole front line of the recruiters is now manned by robots. They have become the gatekeepers to the job seekers. Sure, there are some other really weird questions in there about what that means for humanity when robots decide who gets jobs, but that’s an article for another time.

According to a whitepaper by the Allegis Group2, a recruiter can scan a resume in 6 seconds, but a bot can go through ten of thousands in minutes.

This leads to an interesting discussion among my staff. How and when do I implement this? What is the cost for waiting and becoming a late adopter? Even if I didn’t like the idea of robots deciding whom I hire, there wouldn’t be a lot of choice if I wanted to stay competitive. The first staffing companies to implement this tech are going to have the advantage of collecting the first data and have the biggest lists of candidates.

It is no different in your industry. Oh, you may say to me, “no Paul, we’re different here, we can never automate.”
Maybe you run a greenhouse and need your staff to watch and maintain your plants. There’s no way we can automate that. Until we do. A company called Iron Ox is developing technology that will automate plant transplants, farming, and other greenhouse maintenance. All while using 90% less water than outdoor farming and bringing down labour costs.

Have you seen the advancements in warehousing technologies? You know the ones that have the lights off and little robots scooting around to pick all the items? Amazon is an early adopter of this tech and DHL Supply Chain will soon be using the same for some of their warehouses. Where a building was teeming with people moving about, there will only be an army of robots.

I will bet you my morning smoothie that I can find at least one thing in your business that AI or automation will lead to a competitive edge in the near future.

When and who

Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon.

Does it really matter if the changes are coming now or in a few days from now? Not really, because it isn’t as far off as we think it is. There’s a good chance that the kids in early grade school now are never going to get a driver’s licence. There will be enough autonomous transport, that it just won’t be necessary.

There isn’t a department or job that isn’t going to be affected or made completely redundant by AI and automation. From HR to Labour, everything in between has something that will be touched.

I wish I had the answer for this, but among the debate, there doesn’t seem to be a clear agreement. Are we going to see a shift to new jobs like we have seen for every other technological advancement? The automation in farming hasn’t led to overall joblessness, people have just transitioned into other fields.

It is because AI allows automation to move into every level of human work, we don’t know what will be left over. If doctors and lawyers and journalists are being at least augmented by this innovation and mechanical tasks are being replaced all together, what are we to do? Maybe it will turn into that Star Trek utopia. Or maybe we will become energy for the Matrix. Hopefully, the steak will be delicious, either way.

We may not be in the age of the Jetsons, but in the Canadian Tire flyer that came in the mail today has a Roomba on sale, made by iRobot.

It’s not as complex as the machines in Amazon’s warehouse or Sonny, but I am guessing this little machine does not follow the three laws of robotics.

The wrap

You may want to argue against the inevitability of progress, but history is definitely not on your side. Sooner or later, technology is going to wildly disrupt the norm. We may not have flying cars today, but even that’s not too far away.

Predictions are notoriously hit and miss, but if anything, we can track a general trajectory of progress. And in there, we don’t see much in the way of going backwards. In part 2 of this article, I will go through some of the hows and whens of riding this wave of change.

I wonder if that internet thing ever worked out. I am guessing Robert Metcalfe regretted betting his smoothie on that.

Paul Bergsma
paul@bnlgroup.ca
#HonestReliableFun
www.bnlgroup.ca/jobs

1. Today’s Trucking, The Lockwood Report, September 20, 2017, Vol.14 No, 19
2. The AI Future: Driving a Strategic Talent Function, AllegisGroup.com/AI