Will artificial intelligence change the business landscape in 2016?

Once the sole preserve of sci-fi and fantasy adventures, artificial intelligence is now becoming increasingly commonplace in our lives. AI can drive cars, answer questions and fly drones. But we haven’t quite witnessed an AI revolution in the workplace... or so we might think.

Whether it’s in healthcare, engineering or administration, artificial intelligence is already able to replace surgeons, factory workers and office staff in performing highly technical or hugely repetitive tasks.

The human touch

Humans have emotions and feelings, get sick, demand pay rises and holidays, sometimes fail to gel with colleagues, engage in occasionally ill-advised office banter and have 'off days'. Humans complain about working conditions (even when they are perfectly acceptable), they moan about repetition or the pressure attached to undertaking highly technical work.

Machines, on the other hand, have no physiological needs. AI does not require a cake on its birthday or a carrot and stick approach to motivation and recognition.

But let’s be cautious and take the hype with a pinch of salt: artificial intelligence will not be eliminating the traditional workforce any time soon. Many of us would prefer to interact with another human than we would a faceless robot, despite what we may say to the contrary.

However, on a micro level we have already witnessed the rise of the machines: take a look at self-service checkouts replacing human till operators in supermarkets, for example, and automated machines replacing bank clerks in some branches. Foxconn, who make tech devices such as the iPhone, have already stated they plan to employ a 30 per cent robot workforce by 2021. The process of 'upgrading' has already begun.

Indeed, as Oxford University found in a research study, up to 35 per cent of jobs in the UK could become obsolete due to automation in the next two decades.

It is the sheer potential of the technology, and its myriad of possible end uses, that is driving widespread implementation. The upshot is that it could soon become a force in your particular industry too. As we know, new technologies can create commercial conundrums for start-ups and established businesses alike. But it can drive a wealth of opportunities, too.

The (electronic) wolf of Wall Street

A great example of AI in action is on Wall Street, where traders and bankers are being slowly replaced with machines. This is pertinent because for many of us the stock market is inextricably linked with traders gabbling excitedly on the phone as they secure an investment, before celebrating with champagne and goodness knows what else.

Yet, here we are in 2016, Wall Street is a lot more sedate and well behaved. Investment decisions and trades are based on algorithms, statistics and trends, rather than prevailing human emotion or gut instinct. Is this is a good thing or bad?

Those who blame the 2010 "Flash Crash" on AI machines would believe the latter but, generally, decisions based on undeniable fact, rather than chemical and animal instincts of humans, are surely on a more sound footing.

AI in industry

AI is already very much a factor in engineering, manufacturing and medicine. In the former two, we can class CAD as a form of AI, and this dates back decades. But new adapted technologies for predictive modelling, system management and data analysis have been developed as well.

In medicine, AI is used to analyse patient data already, and finely tuned machines will continue to replace the human hand of the surgeon for more complex procedures.

So AI can help perform complex tasks, process huge amounts of information and aid strategic decision-making. But what about the human touch? Would we be comfortable in being referred to a robot doctor, or happy that our children are being educated by a robot teacher? Quite possibly not.

We can say with some confidence then, that while AI looks set to change the business landscape in 2016 in the sense of processes, functions and operations, it is still lacking in the essential human elements that engender the commercial landscape each and every day.

Problem solving vs problem finding

While AI is a reliable mechanism for performing tasks that vary in nature, is it able to make key strategic decisions? Is it able to understand the sheer fabric of a company or industry?

And, most pertinently, does AI have the capability of finding commercial problems; rather than simply being brought in to solve them?

We recognise AI as providing the functional, the technical and the formulaic. But what about other essential skills in business: perception, experience, negotiation, man management, reading and understanding behaviours. It is here that, currently at least, that AI is found wanting.

We have a clear bridge between a machine’s ability to solve a problem (performing repetitive/highly skilled tasks, lifting heavy loads, developing algorithms etc) and identifying commercial issues proactively from a set of economic, political or legislative factors. Thus, the human element of the workforce will remain long into the future. It may just require us to adopt a more problem finding approach than mere problem solving.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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