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How Artificial Intelligence Is Changing Our Work

Insights & Ideas Team •  May 9, 2016 | Business and Careers

By Karl Gouverneur, chief technology officer at Northwestern Mutual.

GouverneurbAs chief technology officer at Northwestern Mutual, it’s part of my job to keep an eye on emerging technology trends—not just the ones that could affect our business, but also those that could have an impact on our clients’ financial lives.

That’s one reason I’m so interested in the evolution of artificial intelligence—the driving force behind what are sometimes called “smart machines.” Artificial intelligence is on the verge of revolutionizing our workplaces, and it’s up to all of us to get prepared.

What are we talking about? Artificial intelligence, or AI, is a term used to describe applications and devices that can reason, plan, learn and perceive context. Tools driven by artificial intelligence do not have to be constantly reprogrammed to do more advanced tasks; they can learn how to do them. Artificial intelligence may sound futuristic, but in some cases it has been in use for a little while. For example, some office applications are now able to do work usually performed by people. These new, virtual personal assistants can sort and triage emails, documents and calendar entries, putting the items that are of highest priority in front of the user first. These applications don’t just operate on pre-programmed instructions; based on a user’s history and behavior, they can learn what matters most to that person and refine future actions based on those preferences.

Repetitive Task Relief

As this technology progresses, we could see it take on even more sophisticated tasks. For example, if someone schedules a meeting out of town, the application could respond by booking travel and accommodations, and even making reservations at the person’s favorite restaurant in that city—all without any further instruction from the user. This would do more than save time; it would free up human personal assistants to focus on tasks that require greater levels of creativity and problem solving.

Another example we’re seeing is the use of mobile robots in the service industry. A major home-improvement chain has introduced these robots to greet guests, find out what they’re looking for and then direct them to the appropriate section of the store. Even if customers don’t know the exact name of the item they are looking for, the robot can interpret a variety of verbal and visual cues to find the correct answer. Unlike those frustrating prerecorded customer service lines that can only provide stock answers to a limited set of questions, these robots build an understanding of what people are asking for and offer individualized attention. Store workers, in turn, are freed from simply pointing people around the store and can focus on providing service that requires more expertise.

Why does this matter? When simpler automation eliminated some jobs and changed others, the overall trend in the job market was a shift away from manual labor and toward knowledge workers and service-oriented positions. What’s different now is that jobs that require personal brainpower are some of those most likely to be disrupted. We’re already seeing change—simply because in some cases computers can access, process and present information more efficiently than a human can.

In a 2014 study, the technology research group Gartner Inc. projects that by 2020, 17 percent of all workers’ jobs will be disrupted in some way by AI, and 36 percent will be augmented in some way. In other words, just four years from now, more than half of all jobs will be affected by AI. And the rate of change is accelerating; we can expect much greater disruption in the 10 years that follow. Jobs that focus on creating efficiencies and cutting costs—ironically, those that benefited from earlier trends toward automation—are among those likely to feel the greatest impact from the expanding role of AI.

Becoming the Future

Changing Jobs? Top Financial Considerations Beyond SalaryWhat can you do? While work that focuses heavily on repetitive, rudimentary tasks may be disrupted, jobs that depend on human creativity and innovation to generate revenue and add value will remain—and be even more highly valued than they are today. These jobs require 21st-century skills: adaptive problem solving, curiosity, commitment to lifelong learning, collaboration and resilience. Individuals will need to be multiskilled, possessing both technical and business savvy. This will be true for those starting out their careers and those in the middle of them.

How to prepare for this new environment? I remain a strong advocate for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) studies throughout primary, secondary and higher education. But these new jobs will require a bit more. Employers will focus less on looking for individuals with specific technical skills and pay more attention to people’s capacity to constantly learn and adapt to the new demands of a rapidly changing and increasingly digital world. If you’re a parent thinking about your children’s future, STEM still matters. But it’s also important to keep creativity in the mix through the arts—what some like to call STEAM. Unfortunately, many school systems have cut back on arts and music education. That means it’s up to parents to help fuel their kids’ creative spark. (My tech gifts guide last December included some great toys specifically designed to do this while keeping things fun.) The combination of technical savvy and creative energy will equip your children to prosper in this new economy.

What if it’s your own career you’re thinking of? My suggestion isn’t very different. It’s easy to get caught up in the technical demands we face in our day-to-day lives, but it will be more important than before to move outside our comfort zones. This is a great reason to learn something new. That doesn’t have to mean pursuing academic studies—it can mean taking time to step into a creative endeavor, whether it’s learning a foreign language, playing a musical instrument or beginning to paint or sculpt. These activities can do as much as any degree to help you build and maintain the adaptive, versatile mindset that can drive continued success, whatever field you’re in.

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