Monday, December 18, 2023

Understanding the Effects of AI: The Method of Work vs. The Nature of Work

Technology has been changing the world since way before recorded history. And whenever there's a significant advancement, there has been resistance. History is absolutely jam-packed with examples of advancements that people resisted. 

My favorite example is that Socrates opposed the written word. (See Phaedrus by Plato.) Socrates argued that written information is not knowledge. Knowledge came from telling and retelling stories so that a student could demonstrate mastery of the information, and its meaning. With the written word, anyone could pass on information and look knowledgeable without understanding the information they are sharing.

If this sounds like technicians using Google searches to fix computers, it should.

One of the most common reasons for resisting technical advancement is fear of losing your job. This is very often the first reaction when people see artificial intelligence generating text or graphics. The very word Luddite originates from mill workers breaking up machinery out of fear of losing their jobs. 

In fact, technology always creates more jobs than it eliminates - but it creates different kinds of jobs. In this process, it's important to draw a distinction between the method of work and the nature of work.

Many (Many, many, many. Maybe most.) advancements come from trying to improve the method of work. In other words, trying to create a "better mouse trap." Inventions often start by trying to do something faster, better, safer, with less labor. So, for example, tractors replaced plows drawn by oxen.

The promise of improved methods is often that we will be more productive. The bald-faced lie is that soon we will all live massively better lives and work only a few hours per week. We do get more productive, but that just speeds up the need for more people, more jobs, and more consumables. As a rule, technology always makes life better in some way, but it never reduces how much we work.

A great recent example is the use of special-purpose robots at Amazon. Amazon has bought or built more than 750,000 robots in the last few years. AND Amazon has been hiring over 1.5 million people per year over the same period. The technology makes everything move smoother and faster. That creates more work.

Note: These are different kinds of jobs. Robots are working the night shift, lifting the heavy boxes,  and moving things that take too much human effort. So, most of the back-breaking jobs are gone, and they've been replaced by more logistics, more maintenance, more high-touch jobs.

The intention was to change the method of doing the same work. The effect was to change the nature of the work itself.

The fear with AI is echoed again and again on social media: Memes that conclude, "I just saw my job eliminated." I've seen this from writers, editors, teachers, artists, editors, and more. These people are all making the same mistake: They believe AI will do the same work with new tools.

In fact, we're already seeing AI create not just new jobs but new kinds of jobs. No one ever went to school to learn how to write great "prompts" for AI. But now, if you can find a class that will teach you this skill, you will probably pay for it. 

The nature of the work is changing. 

I *highly* encourage you to talk to your employees and your clients about this. Don't let people get away with saying that AI will eliminate jobs. That's an absurd statement. AI is doing what technology always does - just faster than ever before. AI is changing the nature of work.

Think about the IT support business. Fifteen years ago, a technician might have a fulltime job logging into systems, applying patches, rebooting, and going on to the next machine. Now RMM tools and automated updates are universal. Now technicians have fulltime jobs monitoring more machines than ever and just verifying that the automated processes are working.

And the future? What will AI bring? We can't see too far into the future, but it's easy to see the next step: AI will do the monitoring, verify that it's seeing what it thinks it's seeing, then apply the correct fixes. When issues are outside the realm of automation, tickets will be created for humans to go do the work. With luck, the work left for humans will be less tedious and more fulfilling. But we can't promise that.

At the same time, AI will combine with all the other emerging technologies to create new opportunities and new services. IOT (Internet of things) has been exploding for a decade and is probably doing one tenth of one percent of what will be able to do by the end of the decade, especially once AI is added to the monitoring and management levels. 

The technician of the future will not simply use new tools, with AI or any other technology. They will be doing a different kind of work.

Change can be stressful. And I hope you believe that the pace of change is constantly increasing. It will come faster and faster. Look at the AI boom in the last year - and adoption has been almost zero comparing to the visible potential. We cannot imagine the real potential.

You can control the stress to some degree with education and training. Get the training. Train your employees. Train your clients. Seize the opportunities. Create other opportunities.

The future is brighter than it's ever been. But remember the big lie: It won't reduce your workload; it will increase your workload. Just don't dig into the past and get stuck. You have to move ahead. So you might as well embrace it!


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