When the future of work is concerned, there is no escaping the concept of Artificial Intelligence (AI). No other technology is currently considered to have the same vast potential to revolutionize our daily working life. But how exactly will AI transform our world of work? And, do we need to be worried about being replaced by robots soon? Here’s an outlook.
The triumphant success of artificial intelligence
It was a sensation when the chess computer Deep Blue defeated former chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov back in 1997. Twenty years later, people are by no means a challenge for computer programs. Instead, smart, self-learning algorithms are now competing against one another. For instance, the current chess grandmaster is called AlphaZero and was developed by a subsidiary of Google.
But today AI dominates far more than just board games. The technology began permeating our daily lives a long time ago. Virtual assistants such as Siri and Alexa find songs that correspond to our musical tastes as though it were the most natural thing in the world. They will read aloud the weather forecast for the coming week to us or find the fastest train connection from home to the office. Yet for smart software, these are relatively easy tasks when you think about the huge changes that AI is leading to in the world of work.
AI in the factory
The business world expects that the use of artificial intelligence will primarily lead to an increase in efficiency and productivity. The assumption here is that in comparison with humans, AI can make calculations much faster and also error-free, using this basis to independently make decisions. Since robots and machines do not get tired and need only electricity but not pay, ultimately companies will be able to achieve significantly higher margins. In addition, smart and forward-looking production also holds the promise of more sustainable production.
The smart factory, where products roll off the assembly line with almost no human input, has long been a reality. More and more companies are equipping their production plants with smart software. At Merck we are also deploying AI to an increasingly greater extent. For instance, we are using a software called Comet, which makes it possible to immediately identify deviations in production processes by evaluating huge quantities of data. In March of this year, we formed a partnership in the field of AI-based active ingredient research with Iktos of France. The AI technology from Iktos is accelerating drug discovery by automatically designing virtual novel molecules with the desired activity to treat a certain disease.
To further drive the use of AI in the process industry, this year Merck founded the innovation platform KEEN together with other major industrial companies, renowned research institutes and universities. As part of this initiative, which is being coordinated by the Technical University of Dresden, AI innovations are to be transferred to specific applications, e.g. self-optimizing production units. Just recently, the initiative was distinguished as an AI lighthouse project of particular relevance in the AI innovation competition of the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy.
Winners and losers?
Despite all the optimism about the future, it’s important not to overlook key questions. What role will humans play in the automated world of work and how will this impact our jobs? Optimists say AI will relieve people of physically toiling and annoyingly repetitive work, giving them more time for creative tasks. Humans could focus on coming up with new, innovative products and services and developing even smarter algorithms. With the use of AI, not only productivity and efficiency, but also innovative strength will increase.
Pessimists assume that with the triumphant success of smart software, jobs will be lost and replaced by robots. Yet study results on the impact of AI on employment levels are highly divergent. While some researchers predict mass unemployment, others believe that at least as many new jobs will be created as will be lost. In any case, precise predictions of the impact of AI on employment are very difficult owing to the complexity of the technology as well as the wide variety of professions and vocations.
Even the generalized assumption that low-income earners in particular are going to be replaced by robots is, in my opinion, a fallacy. For example, the ability of computers to handle activities with a high analytical effort, such as stock trading or lending, is growing exponentially. On the other hand, where life experience, general knowledge, creativity, social intelligence, dexterity, interpretation skills or ethical decisions are required, people will remain ahead of the game for the foreseeable future.
Our software Comet, for instance, performs complex analyses to precisely identify deviations in the production process. However, operator intervention is still required. That’s because most AI programs can currently only perform a specific task for which they have been programmed. Yet even if modern AI algorithms are able to not only inform us of irregularities but also give us specific instructions on what we need to do, in our view employee knowledge and their understanding of processes remain irreplaceable. That’s because people are born generalists who have experience and context knowledge that cannot be programmed, and who can flexibly acquire a wide variety of skills – be it playing chess or driving a car.
Need for mutual respect
There’s absolutely no doubt that people need to be prepared for AI. Education and training are the key to this. This starts with digital education in schools and extends to the teaching of IT skills at university all the way to professional advanced training. Irrespective of the question as to whether a profession will disappear owing to AI or not, sooner or later we will all come into contact with AI and most likely work with it in some way. This is precisely why the topic of digitalization is also on the agenda of the BAVC and the IG BCE, the collective bargaining partners in the German chemical industry.
In any case, Gary Kasparov ultimately saw his defeat by the chess computer Deep Blue as an opportunity and from then on, used the chess program to train and further develop his own chess strategies. And vice versa, Deep Blue is learning new chess moves from Kasparov. The idea behind this is clear: the full potential of AI will only unfold if it is melded with the natural intelligence of humans. The more AI understands humans, the better its results will be and the more intuitive our interactions with AI will become. Yet the precondition for this is that we accept the technology.