One of the speakers at the AI Finance Summit was Willis Towers Watson’s George Zarkadakis. Willis Towers Watson is a leading global advisory, broking and solutions company that helps clients around the world turn risk into a path for growth. With roots dating to 1828, Willis Towers Watson has 39,000 employees in more than 120 countries. We design and deliver solutions that manage risk, optimize benefits, cultivate talent, and expand the power of capital to protect and strengthen institutions and individuals. Our unique perspective allows us to see the critical intersections between talent, assets and ideas — the dynamic formula that drives business performance. Together, we unlock potential.
George Zarkadakis is the Digital Lead for Willis Towers Watson’s Communications and Change Management practice, where he focuses on digital employee experience and the future of work in the era of cognitive computing. He has over 25 years experience in business consulting, media, marketing and communications, as well as in digital strategy and digital solutions. He holds a PhD in Artificial Intelligence and is the author of “In Our Own Image: the history and future of Artificial Intelligence”. He blogs regularly for the Huffington Post about AI.
Zarkadakis opened up the conversation asking: “what will happen to humans and organisations, small and big, as a result to automation and artificial intelligence?”, which is a big question to raise, and a difficult one to answer. He explained that the fair around the impact that AI will have on our society, stems from many years back. “It has been around since the early days of the computer era”, he said.
“The fear has not materialised so far. Most of the manufacturing jobs that have been lost throughout those years have been due to outsourcing and offshoring, rather than automation”, Zarkadakis explained, following up with asking if could it be different now?
“How much can this technology do when it automates human cognition, functions, and what we do as human beings?”
Zarkadakis said that he believes that we can look at this in three different ways. The first is ‘recognition AI’. Recognition AI is basically what allows a computer to recognise elements in a photo, and he believes that the hype around AI is around this. Recognition AI allows machines to look into data and infer facts, which is all thanks to machine learning, Zarkadakis explains.
“Then we have Cognitive AI”, he says. Cognitive AI are machines that basically can do a lot more. “They are more autonomously and they can use these facts in order to extract knowledge, and then use this knowledge in an autonomous way as experts and assistants, as driverless cars if you like”, Zarkadakis explains. However, he mentions that still, this cognitive AI is again narrowed by the scope of the application. It does not have common sense, and can’t transfer knowledge or learn by itself.
The last one is referred to as General AI, which is the most human-like AI of them all. “In my opinion, general AI is very bad for anyone who gets their hands on it”, Zarkadakis said, as he believes it is something that can be used in dangerous ways.
Zarkadakis said that he believes that it is important that businesses start automating now, as there are three areas where he sees the value of businesses implementing AI.
“The three options when it comes to technology is: robotic automation – not really AI, but vendors are increasingly integrating AI into their technology, cognitive automation – the real thing, AI that is not routine and is creating things like IBM Watson, and can automate parts of human doctors etc., and social robotics – robots that have an assembly line essentially, where the key word is collaborative robots”.
After having summarised these three technologies and looked at what the future might bring, Zarkadakis raised the question of whether we are going to see the end of work as we know it? “Are we talking about a complete destruction of social order?”
Zarkadakis believes that the fear of AI stems from panic based around research that initially can seem initmidating, and in certain cases are blatantly wrong. Referring to research saying that 47% of jobs will be automated, he said that there is research out there that explains shows that: no, jobs in general will not be automated, however particular tasks of that specific job will be automated.
“This means that with current technology, 58% of jobs could be automated, but only 5% of jobs would be replaced”, Zarkadakis says. However, this initiates a change in jobs in general. “The more educated you are the less automated you will be”, Zarkadakis said, following up with: “However, highly educated people coming from university have seen that mainly start-up jobs can be fully automated”.This could potentially make it harder for graduates, despite their level of education, to get a permanent job, as there is significant price differences in investing in a human, rather than a robot.
“Can AI act as leverage to increase productivity? We think it can! We think that there will be significant technology that will increase human productivity and therefore our wages will increase” Zarkadakis said.
He believes that companies either attract or draw talent from other talent platforms, or they become platforms themselves, and they change their organisations when necessary. Zarkadakis deems this way of thinking as a very significant factor for driving the future, and introduces the 5 forces of change that he believes will act upon companies: “They identified two emergent themes of change, and it is the combination of those two themes that we believe will have to be taken into account when you think of your organisation and products in the future”, he said.
One is the democratisation of work, essentially the economy, and how the economy changes the balance and relationship between the employees and the employer. “We don’t think in a very binary way when we think about employees that impact us, it is important to think of what’s in between the contractor and the employees and to regulate ourselves around that”.
“The way a company scale traditionally is by augmenting their workforce, but in an Uber-empowered world with AI, we see companies scale by decreasing their numbers, and by using AI-enabled resources, so what does that really mean?” he asks.
Zarkadakis predicts a change in employment in organisations in the future, as they become leaner and leaner he predicts we will start seeing more VC’s rather than traditional organisations. A company that has access to capital might shift to technologies and to clients and so on, and they use human resources in order to create value.
“Will we be replaced by AI? What will happen to the white-collar jobs?”, Zarkadakis asks, saying how there has been a lot of talk about this question, asking what happens to someone’s job when you automate 30% of your task.
“The way we approach answering this question is by identifying within an organisation, various classes of categories of work, and which is significant to understand the impact of AI on jobs” he says.
He uses two examples – proficiency roles, and pivotal roles. A proficiency role is a pilot, whose job eventually stagnates as he reaches the legally minium expected performance. He will continue to fly and land planes in the same way as always. His job is deemed as a proficiency role, and also the role that is most likely to suffer from complete automation.
However, a flight attendant is deemed pivotal, as her role can change by being more personalised with the customers and therefore increasing the value of the company.
” n fact, in the future when we will be going to airplanes, there won’t be any pilots at all. That might sound shocking, but I think it will be normal in the future”, Zarkadakis says. He mentions how airline companies can apply AI to further improve the work of the flight attendants as they can gather value customer data through the technology, to further enhance their service.
“Pivotal roles will become more valuable, proficiency roles will be severly disrupted” – George Zarkadakis.
This way of approaching AI in the professional environment also applies to the medical sector, with doctors using the support of IBM’s Watson to give a diagnosis, which will give the doctor more time with the patient, giving the doctor an increased value.
“So how do you start thinking about future-proofing your company today?”, Zarkadakis asks, and his answer is: “Scaling agile and going lean is the way, and putting people first is the most important thing”.
“Think about what technologies you need, and rethink how you assign jobs, deconstruct tasks, and ask what can be automated. How can I change the organisation? Rethink awards – how do you award people in this new world?”