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Will AI Surpass Past Technologies in Displacing Human Work? (Video)

Video produced by Steve Nathans-Kelly

AI will improve products and processes and make decisions better-informed/important but largely invisible tasks. However, AI technologies won't replace human workers but augment their capabilities, with smart machines working alongside smart people. KMWorld 2019 presented a keynote panel discussion that explained how businesses can put AI to work now, in the real world.

"We can go back several thousand years and look at 'technology' that has replaced human work," said Microsoft modern workplace supportability engineer Ross Smith. "In 1500 B.C., Ancient Mesopotamia came up with this concept called the aqueduct which would bring water and it really became impactful in Rome when they developed the arch. And then they could go about three kilometers and bring water, so if you've seen the images of Roman women with buckets on their heads carrying the water, the aqueduct had them go into different jobs."

Fast-forward a little bit to the first century A.D. in China and Yuan Lee developed this new technology called paper, said Smith. "At the time, everything was written on papyrus and the papyrus industry was heavily unionized and close with the emperor. And so the emperor decreed that this new technology, paper, was not to be used for any government or religious texts. Obviously, we don't think of paper as a technology today but fast-forward to the 1400s, and the printing press and the mass production of the Bible. Again, this displaced the monks who had hand-scribed Bibles. And again the church came out and said that these new, mass-printed Bibles were not to be used for religious ceremonies. But it really helped spread the word of Christianity throughout the world, being able to do this quickly."

Continuing to look at technology through history, Smith said, "Going forward another 300 years or so, to the power loom and, have people heard the term 'Luddite?' That comes from this mythical character named Ned Ludd. He he was a spinner in the late 18th century and his factory went out and purchased one of these new power looms, this automated spinner. And he showed up to work one day, saw he was replaced, and smashed the machine. It's not sure that he really existed, this is legend. But in 1820, the power loom started to really replace spinners throughout England in the Industrial Revolution. And so, what was fascinating is that the spinners basically went out of business and were replaced, but the weavers if they could keep up with the pace of the new machine were like rock star employees. Free food, housing, you know, like Google employees. And the spinners in Birmingham and Manchester formed this group called The Luddites which then went and started smashing the machines, basically kept lists of factories that were replacing workers."

Throughout all of history there are stories of technology and worker displacement, Smith said, adding that one last interesting one is the ATM. "The year 1967 was the introduction of the first cash machine. And yet today there are more bank tellers then there were in 1967 despite the prevalence of ATMs. And so, it's not all bad news." 

But the question now with AI, said Smith, is: Is this time different?

"Today, everyone uses technology but you all do different work. So as we see the increase in the capabilities of AI, machine learning, robotics, and automation, you know, my theory is that, if you look at any given technology, the car replacing the horse, or the ATM replacing the bank teller, there' are other places they can go, other industries. But now with technology, everybody's using technology regardless of industry. Every company is a tech company now. And so, as we see the increase in these technologies, what does that do to the workplace of the future? And I'll leave that as an open question."

To access the full presentation, go to Welcome & keynote - Knowledge Management in the Age of Smart Machines.

Videos of KMWorld 2019 awards presentations, keynotes, and many sessions can be found here.

Many speakers at KMWorld 2019 have also made their presentations available at www.kmworld.com/Conference/2019/Presentations.aspx.


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