AI and the future of the workplace

The paradigm of Man vs. Machine is an extremely common trope in pop culture over the last fifty years. From Skynet to the Matrix, we seem all too eager to imagine an apocalyptic future where steel-hearted robots make humanity obsolete. Some would say, we’re already well on our way to such a scenario. In Human + Machine, Paul Daugherty and H. James Wilson put forward a more balanced and optimistic vision of the present and future of AI.

The most realistic concerns about AI tend to revolve about the implications automation has on the job market. There is research that anticipates 30 million jobs being wiped out in the next decade or so due to the proliferation of AI technology in manufacturing, logistics, and other fields.

Daugherty and Wilson argue that this alarmism entirely misses the point of the AI revolution. Yes, AI now has applications in everything from factories to marketing to research and development. But it is a matter of augmenting human ability, not eclipsing it. They define AI from the outset as “systems that extend human capability by sensing, comprehending, and learning.”

This augmentation occurs in what the authors call the “Missing Middle.” They emphasize that there are tasks and jobs that only human beings can do—leadership, judgment, dealing with ambiguity. At the other extreme, there are iterative jobs that only AI can do, such as collecting and analyzing huge amounts of data on the fly. But in between these exclusive extremes, there is a middle ground where humans and AI compliment each other perfectly. This is the Missing Middle.

The bulk of the book is comprised of a cornucopia of examples—Daugherty and Wilson analyzed 1,500 companies to write the book—illustrating how certain firms and industries are already exploiting the Missing Middle to make massive gains in efficiency.

The last few chapters of the book develop the leadership principles needed to integrate AI effectively into the human-dominated workplace. They outline five crucial principles: Mindset, Experimentation, Leadership, Data, and Skills. (MELDS) These principles emphasize the importance of committing to the responsible application and integration of AI. It requires the entirely human abilities of leadership and good judgement, even a sense of morality. The MELDS framework ensures that business leaders do not lose sight of their humanity in the pursuit of the ongoing AI revolution.

The book is very optimistic, and its combination of exhaustive industry research and practicable insights is impressive. The book is fairly dry, and it does drag occasionally. At times the authors bombard you ad nauseam with different examples of firms and technologies, while not developing some of their bigger picture concepts as much.

Those bigger picture concepts are in there, even if buried under a mountain of research. Overall, it paints a picture of AI as a tool, an extension of human beings, as opposed to a relentless anti-human, job-destroying force. At least for the present, the robot apocalypse seems to be on hold.

Human + Machine by Paul Daugherty and H. James Wilson is available for purchase here.

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