The future is now — so embrace AI

By Raghu Santanam

Chair, Department of Information Systems

This is something big.

That’s my shorthand version of the long-term outlook on digital platforms and innovations. When you look at today’s technology and how rapidly it’s progressing across multiple industries, you wonder what the future holds for all of us. Most products and services today are now part of a complex business ecosystem.

Given the salience of artificial intelligence (AI) for business and society, I have developed a one-day workshop for business leaders to get up to speed on these concepts. "The Future of Work and Digital Innovation” workshop will be held on Feb. 21, 2018, at ASU’s Tempe campus.

We are still tackling a number of basic questions on the impact of AI and the future of work. Below are a sample set of questions and answers. I am sure you have many of your own. I welcome your comments and questions on this significant topic.

Q: What is the impact of constant digital innovation?

The more I learn and see of digital innovations, the more optimistic I am about the changes to come. But those changes will bring a lot of uncertainty to different pockets of society, to different workers, companies, and industries. Automation and transformation are changing how we work. It is important that we begin to recognize opportunities and identify future strategies that leverage the fast-paced technology trends.

Q: How much of what we innovate should rely on theory vs. practical insights and applications?

We have to embrace both theory and practical insights in our innovation pursuits. Given that so much of AI’s potential is yet to be realized, there is a lot of room for structured thought exercises. However, in envisioning the future, there can be many misperceptions. If you’ve watched HBO’s West World, you may be tempted to overestimate AI’s capabilities to such a level that it’s outrageous. But actually, a lot of mundane AI concepts are already in use, and many concepts that are passed off as AI are not. So, my approach is to first lay the ground work by having a common understanding of the foundational concepts of AI, its evolution, and applications.

In my workshop, I use a case study on self-driving cars to look at which aspects are done through AI, what data do you need, what kind of perception technology, and so on. It’s done in a way that all of us can understand. At the same time, not all of us may feel the same way about self-driving cars. That’s where I take participants on a deeper dive — let’s look at our own companies. We do hands-on activities and create structure and exercises.

Q: What’s your take on anxiety-inducing topics — such as machines replacing people for tasks?

To an extent, all of us face that anxiety. Even as a professor, I face it, because digital innovations could impact my teaching. But instead of putting our heads in the sand, we need to be saying, “This is what’s coming. How can I do things better?” We have to understand how these innovations redefine our jobs and industries. We have to learn how to spot those strategic possibilities and applications for business.

Q: When it comes to the implications of machine learning, robotics, and automation in daily life, how much consensus do you hear?

There’s a lot we don’t know yet. Within the AI community, for example, the debate may be whether AI itself is good for society. From a technology perspective, it may be about general-purpose AI machines vs. task-specific AI machines. It also helps to think about it from a policy perspective. That debate can range from whether we should guarantee everyone a livable minimum wage when, 30 to 40 years from now, AI is so effective that it has eliminated too many jobs. Then again, what if entirely new types of jobs spring up?

The gig economy is another aspect of digital platforms and the future of work — it portends what is to come. We’re going to be more independent in the type of work we choose and the way we value free time vs. work time. In many ways, it’s similar to society 200 years ago when the notion of year-round work was very uncommon. The whole concept of a work week and job security is very 20th century, and what’s interesting is that this concept now seems like an anomaly in human history — we might very soon be in an independent gig economy. I bring a bit of that discussion into my workshop. Why did it emerge? At the project level and at the task level? We talk about which industries have the potential to evolve and adapt, and it’s important to have that understanding. After all, today’s displaced workers expected to be doing the same things they were trained for in the early years of their career.

Q: What will participants take away from your workshop?

First, they will better understand all the enthusiasm about AI and robotics and what it means for society. They will have a better handle on its broader implications. Second, within their own business context, they will be better prepared to discern the great potential of AI and digital transformation and its influence in the short, medium, and long-term.

Register for the "Future of Work and Digital Innovation" workshop.

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