The office of the future: Reassuringly familiar or fundamentally different?

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by Nicola Eschenburg, Global Head of Analyst Relations – Cyber Security at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence


I had the pleasure of being invited to join the Advisory Board of the Artificial Intelligence All Party Parliamentary Group (AI APPG) earlier this year. It was convened by Stephen Metcalfe (Conservative MP) and Lord Clement-Jones CBE (Liberal Democrat Peer) to consider the future and implications of artificial intelligence, and is expected to run for two years. This is the third in a blog series following the discussions of the Group.

The 18 hour, six day week of the pre-Industrial Revolution era is unthinkable today, yet the changes that bought our current (much improved) working schedules about were incredibly threatening to many at the time. We face a similar conundrum again with the fourth industrial revolution looming: will our working lives be reassuring familiar, or fundamentally different?

Think about the assumption that AI will focus on routine work – or blue collar jobs. It says jobs requiring ‘human’ intelligence, or deep expertise, will be passed by. It says we all get to upskill, and focus on the more interesting work while robots deal with the boring and mundane. Clearly, what’s not to like?

Then contrast that theory with the astute question posed by a well-known power tool purveyor to its newly recruited execs. The company shows them a picture of a drill, and asks if this is what they sell to customers. It then corrects their immediate ‘yes’ by showing them a picture of a hole in a wall.

This hole is the fundamental reason their customers buy their tools – it’s the ‘what’ that matters. The how is simply a means to an end. So if computer systems can diagnose leukaemia more accurately than a doctor can[1], and predict the outcome of a court case more consistently[2], are any jobs really ‘safe’?

It’s unlikely that mainstream consumers will choose the less accurate option when lives are literally on the line – and the fourth Industrial Revolution is inevitable as a result. The question becomes not how to co-exist with artificial intelligence, but how we as humans can benefit from augmented intelligence – and how to help the displaced upskill as a result.

Moral and ethical questions still abound: Are there are any jobs that are too socially valuable to automate? Just because it can do it, does it mean it should? Should machines be held to the same standards as humans – or lower, or even higher? The Group argued that if we don’t think these things through and set up frameworks to deal with them now, we will be forever on the back foot rather than taking advantage of the potential these new technologies offer.

The idea that we will look back at today’s working lives in another two hundred years and consider it unthinkable that humans worked to live, instead of simply enjoying life and creating art, is an alluring one. It’s also one that won’t come about without concerted thinking and preparation.

Note: I will update this blog with the official meeting summary once it is published.

[1] https://www.top500.org/news/watson-proving-better-than-doctors-in-diagnosing-cancer/

[2] https://www.artificiallawyer.com/2017/03/21/the-lex-machina-story-from-start-up-to-lexisnexis/

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