McKinsey stated in their May 2013 report on Disruptive Technologies, that the Automation of Knowledge Work ranks pretty high in terms of future economic impact. They contended that AI would impact the economy to the tune of $5-7 tr per annum, stripping up to 140m jobs from the economy by 2025. But McKinsey have evolved their position much more recently in line with my own thinking.

Efficiency is an inevitable impact of AI, and just the latest chapter in mankind’s on-going mission to remove the repetitive heavy-lifting tasks from the average worker. We have been doing that for thousands of years, so automation is inevitable.

What has become clear in recent times is that this is much more likely to manifest itself by slowly changing people’s jobs rather than destroying them. While McKinsey predict that 45% of work activities could be automated using already demonstrated technology, recent research indicates that only 4% of roles are subject to the possibility of complete automation. It is activities that are likely to be automated, not whole jobs. Consider that alongside the fact that many of our most incumbent enterprises have been historically slow to change, burdened by significant legacy systems, it seems clear that the re-engineering of Knowledge Work will be an evolution rather than a devastating implosion of the labour force.

So when knowledge workers are relieved of these repetitive activities, what else will they do?

Well, that is the big question.

What seems clear to me is that AI will not only continue to deliver efficiencies, it will substantially augment the knowledge worker with powerful knowledge tools, assisting them in their role not only by removing rote tasks but by giving access to insights and intelligence. This should lead to substantial increases in the quality of services. It should also enable the knowledge worker to spend additional time generating additional value for the customer, their employer, and hopefully themselves. These new tasks may involve skills that AI is less likely to automate – those involving creativity and emotion. Examples include: building relationships with customers, up-selling, listening and advising.

AI is going to continue to deliver efficiency, and augment our workers – but it is doing more than that. It is spawning a new proliferation of innovation, the invention of entirely new products and services that would not have been possible without AI.

This innovation is going to have a dramatic impact on the economy in the future, stimulating the birth of new companies that could not previously have existed. If that feels hard to believe, remember that AI is just the next manifestation of mainstream computer science, and the number of companies that have been created as a result of that is immeasurable.

Automation is not evil, it is inevitable. The benefits of augmenting existing knowledge workers and the benefits of innovating new businesses should be considered hand-in-hand when evaluating likely headcount reduction as the result of efficiency gains in the workplace…

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