"We will take your jobs," said Sophia, a humanoid robot powered by artificial intelligence (AI). The audience of 60,000 world technology leaders at Web Summit, the world's largest technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal, nervously laughed. "That was not funny," I heard an engineer next to me whispering to himself.
At this point, you must have heard about how advances in AI are disrupting industries and posing a threat to the job security of millions of workers worldwide. The jobs of office clerks, receptionists, customer service reps, analysts, marketers, doctors, attorneys, underwriters and creatives could be replaced by AI in the next decade. As Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google put it, "In the next 10 years, we will shift to a world that is AI-first."
History repeats itself, and the fourth Industrial Revolution is on the way.
How big of a threat is AI to your employment? Well, consider this: AI is cheaper and more productive than you are. It doesn't sleep, need breaks, get sick or take vacations, and it doesn't need health insurance or retirement benefits. It can work around the clock, is much faster than you are, can instantly scale to levels that human workers can't simply achieve, can quickly acquire and learn new skills, and it doesn't make mistakes.
Does that sound scary? The engineer sitting next to me surely thought so. Even the very engineers designing AI are not safe from AI taking over their jobs. Recent advances in machine learning (or deep learning) allow AI to learn without help from humans and evolve beyond our wildest expectations.
An AI program called AlphaGo Zero recently learned how to play Go (the world's most difficult board game, with more moves than chess) on its own without relying on human knowledge. It reached world champion status in just three days
. It then beat the previous version of AlphaGo (the one taught by humans) with the score 100-0, demonstrating strategies previously unknown to humans, many of which are not entirely understood, even by expert players.
Sophia, the same robot that threatened to take our jobs at the conference, had another surprise up her sleeve with the announcement of Singularity Net -- a decentralized open market for AI built on blockchain technology. Translated from geek-speak: Imagine an internet for artificial intelligence, where all of the AIs in the world can instantly share information, learn, evolve and acquire new capabilities on their own. Skynet
There is no chance of this tide turning. I estimated that during Web Summit at least two-thirds of all talks, panels and startups focused on AI or at least had a role for it in their presentations. AI is literally reshaping the world as we know it. "It's hard to overstate," Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wrote
, "how big of an impact AI is going to have."
So, if you can't fight AI, then what can you do to safeguard your future employment? The first step is to get yourself educated about it. It is a field that is currently understood only by specialists. At the conference, Kevin Bandy, chief digital officer at Cisco Systems, shared an observation that people embrace AI in their personal lives (Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri, Google Now, Microsoft Cortana) but are wary of it in their professional careers. Bandy speculated that people are naturally scared of what they don't understand and how most people's understanding of AI is shaped by Hollywood.
It is hard to fully explain AI in one article, but what I can tell you (to put your mind at ease) is that AI is more natural than you think. In fact, AI learns through machine learning, similar to you and me, by learning from its own mistakes, studying examples and applying the acquired knowledge over time. It is also expected that some AI will require human oversight. Most experts agree that we will need restrictions put in place if we allow AI to make critical decisions about human lives, health and overall well-being. In fact, many legislatures around the world (such as the UK
and the EU
) are already scrambling to understand the implications of AI's role in our lives.
All of this gives you an excellent opportunity to future-proof your job. Don't fight AI -- you will lose every time. Instead, embrace it and become part of this revolution. You are already the expert in your field; all you're missing is an understanding of AI. You don't need to be an engineer or have a technology background, but you must have a basic understanding of how AI works, its applications in your industry and what the future holds.
When you're equipped with both a background in AI and your domain expertise, you will become a natural candidate to train and oversee AI in your organization when the time comes. And this time is coming soon, so start educating yourself: Read books and articles, attend conferences and take online course and webinars to learn about AI and its applications to your business.
Douglas Engelbart, a U.S. computing pioneer, famously said in 1958: "Technology should not aim to replace the humans, rather amplify human capabilities." Although AI was in its infancy in the 1950s, Engelbart predicted that this day would come. By educating yourself about AI today, you can help amplify your work abilities tomorrow, making yourself an irreplaceable asset to your organization.