Humans or machines: who are the anti-heroes of the new digital world?

In the latest installment of the Terminator saga, the savior turns on Humanity and embraces Skynet. John Connor betrays the resistance, believing that the best way forward is to become one with the machine. The unexpected turn in this iconic sci-fi story plays into the fears and tribulations of the digital era we are entering. The current doomsday scenario is not so much that the machines will want to kill us, but that they will render us useless. Robots are taking over everywhere, from factory floors to call centers, from insurance companies to check-out lines at the supermarket. Numerous reports have sounded the alarm, and things like work life balance comes as a discussion topic, as millions of jobs will be lost to automation.

Automakers and tech giants are collaborating to usher in the era of the autonomous car; some outliers are well underway to deliver flying cars, in what will essentially revolutionize the way we go from point A to B. Visionaries like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have warned repeatedly against the dangers of Artificial Intelligence and the need to guarantee that the Human race remains in control. Futurists like Gerd Leonhard and Rudy de Waele go around the world telling leaders that the more technology automates our life, the more we need a humanist perspective on digital evolution. And while we read about the dangers of technology via an AI-curated news feed and learn about addiction to gadgets through an article sent to our smartphone, the march towards a machine-controlled future seems inevitable. But is it really?

In early 2016, the World Economic Forum made headlines by warning that robots were going to eliminate 5 million jobs by 2020, triggering a profound discussion about the future of companies and human work. While no one can dispute that digital transformation and the 4th industrial revolution will reshape civilization, looking at the downsides is like telling only half the story. That’s why the WEF released a new report last year with a slew of new numbers: automation is now projected to kill 75 million jobs by 2022 – but it will create a lot more, 133 million to be precise. Researchers at Gartner have come to the same conclusion, predicting AI will create more jobs than the ones it will destroy.

The fear of new technology is almost as certain as digital evolution: it always happened in past leaps and it is happening with the current wave. The difference now is that the pace of change is unprecedented, leaving us little time to understand or adapt to what is coming. That is the key to embracing the new digital era: being flexible enough to adapt and identify opportunities to change for the better. Companies will not be run by central computers, they will still be run and staffed by real people. In fact, we have a golden opportunity to change the way we work and be more productive and more creative within corporations. We can use technology to alleviate dull tasks, collaborate better and work fewer hours, achieving a better work-life balance. In fact, a recent study by the Social Market Foundation think-tank concluded that AI and automation can lead to a four-day working week, without any loss of productivity. Low-code platforms for software development will not replace programmers, they will give them more time and headspace to focus on really important (and less repetitive) tasks. Machines will enhance human agents in contact centers but they cannot replace the need for human touch. AI, robots, machine learning, deep learning and everything in between are not good or bad. They are tools that can be used for the advancement of society, and that’s entirely our choice.


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