rethink everything

    Why Artificial Intelligence sustainability is set to become a byword for good business


    By Jonny Mulholland

    Clearing the Path to Utopia 

    Artificial Intelligence (AI) is set to spark the next industrial revolution. While the benefits of AI in the workplace are obvious, the impact on employment in the short term is predicted, almost universally, to be dire. But this picture is too simplistic, and it needs a fresh look. Here's why the evolution of employment and the workplace over the next half century could be much more gentle, and much more interesting, than you thought.

    There’s a universal and well-known narrative surrounding AI in the workplace. Here’s the short version.

    As AI becomes more and more sophisticated, businesses will use it to replace humans in more and more jobs. Autonomous vehicles will make human drivers not only unnecessary, but the dangerous option1. Chatbots are on track to become far more efficient customer advisors2, at least for simple queries, than people could ever be. An AI can already spot cancer on CT scans3 better than a human radiographer.

    Ideally, people displaced by AI will retrain and find alternative employment. But, so the story goes, the overall number of jobs will decrease. The unlucky ones who struggle to find work will be legion, and they will be deprived.

    If the purpose of AI is to reach a utopia in which we don't need full-time jobs, it would seem to be developing at a rate faster than society can restructure itself to handle.


    The productivity problem

    But this story has a plot hole. If AI is set to cause unprecedented economic growth—the US economic growth rate, for example, is predicted to increase from 2.6% to 4.6% in 20354 —driven by an increase in productivity of up to 40%, who is going to consume all that extra product if many people can no longer afford to?

    Fortunately, this may be a problem that forces its own solution. Businesses simply don’t fare well when supply outstrips demand, and so, for them as well as the employees they displace, the timescales needed for society to adapt to the new paradigm may be intolerable unless organisations introduce proactive measures for sustainable AI deployment. These measures will be necessary not just for preventing displaced employees from becoming destitute, but also for ensuring that businesses always have enough customers able to purchase their products and services as AI ramps up productivity.

    Real intelligent investments

    The AI sustainability lens will highlight a range of impact investment opportunities, as well as businesses to steer clear of.

    Most attractive will be businesses that have a clearly defined AI sustainability agenda as part of their broader Corporate Social Responsibility programme.

    These are the organisations who will have recognised both the potential socioeconomic benefits and dangers of AI proliferation, and are committed to promoting the former and mitigating the latter. Such agendas will lay out measures for the responsible introduction of AI, which may include prioritising applications that offer clear customer benefits versus those that simply offer cost savings; limiting the rate at which AI can be introduced to allow employees, businesses and society time to adjust; and running redeployment and retraining programmes for displaced employees.

    Then there are those businesses likely to continue to employ people even as AI becomes ubiquitous. With AI taking on the burden of administration, workforces can be mobilised to focus on jobs that will support our ageing populating emotionally. Medicine and social care will focus more on the physical and emotional needs of the patient. Financial services will centre around human relationships. And the opportunity for creating a step change in the quality and emphasis of education cannot be understated.

    Creating a new society

    When it comes to a new emphasis for education, a pivot towards creativity will be a central piece of the puzzle.

    Not only can learning to be creative improve things like IQ, academic performance, and verbal skills; it can fundamentally change the way we see the world5. And, when it comes to lubricating societal shift towards the new AI paradigm, a focus on creativity will prepare the next generation for a completely new job landscape.

    While AI can already create works of art, including paintings6 and music7, which are indistinguishable from artworks created by humans, there are limitations. The first is that while the algorithms behind AI are getting more complex all the time, they are ultimately still just algorithms. That means that any creative work produced by an AI is merely a remix of the creativity of humans; one complex enough so that it might appear to be an original work; but nevertheless, utterly derivative.

    A purely algorithmic AI cannot replicate the heuristic creative leaps of people needed for the wholesale reformations of conceptual structure involved in truly original works and the birth of new genres of art, music or cuisine.

    In short, we still have absolutely no idea how to build an AI that can do things we don’t yet know how to do—a point that’s relevant to creativity in any field, not just works of art.


    Then there’s the consciousness limitation. Leaving aside the question of conscious machines (which lie in the middle of their own ethical minefield), art is more than the artefact.

    When you consume a creative work, whether visual, audible or edible, you enter into a communion with the creator

    a transfer of information and emotion from their consciousness to yours via the work of art–a quality that is completely intangible and cannot be replicated by an AI. Would you be able to form the same connection with your favourite novel if one day you learned that it had been computed by unconscious algorithms?

    Finally, there’s the issue of worth. With computer-generated art, supply will be functionally infinite relative to demand. Not so with human-generated art. It is surely obvious even to the most lay businessperson who (certainly not what) will always create the most valuable art.

    Creative AI, then, has a much higher bar to reach than mere aesthetics before it can supplant human creativity.

    Indeed, given the questions of supply-and-demand and the magic of conscious communion, it may be a bar that it can never overcome. The creative industries are therefore likely to become increasingly important in the coming decades, both in terms of continuing to provide humans with employment and, perhaps more importantly, meaning.

    Right business is good business

    It’s possible that our journey to a world where our material concerns are minimised, and the time available to us for meaningful pursuits is maximised, will be messy. But it doesn’t have to be. Indeed, as with climate change, the apparent short-term prospects of rapid AI proliferation belie the potential severity of the long-term cost to businesses as well as employees. It will, then, surely become obvious to all but the most mercenary, short-sighted organisations that it’s in everyone’s best interest to facilitate a smooth, sustainable shift over a chaotic convulsion.

    We therefore need to take a common sense, proactive, value-led approach to redefining the shape of human employment. As with the environmental agenda, that means seeing AI sustainability and finding the real, ongoing value in human work not only as the right things to do, but also as good business.


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