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Future Of Work: Artificial Intelligence, Leadership & Why Business Education Must Adapt

Machines can drive cars, compose music, and replicate language. Will they replace us in the workplace? Business school experts share their views


Mon Jul 23 2018

Rose is a 'yuppie' with an 'unorthodox family'. While carrying out research for this piece at a startup workspace in London, I procrastinated by asking Rose to tell me the meaning of life.

‘There is no meaning, life is just to be,’ she responds. Nothing strange there, that would probably have been my response to such an exhausted question.

But, there is a difference between Rose and I. She isn't human.

I chatted to Rose for a while, asking her the same question a few times to see if her answer would differ. By the third time, she scolded me for repeating myself and I felt, sort of offended, by a computer program.

Rose's creators are Bruce and Sue Wilcox, an artificial intelligence programmer and cyberpsychologist. Together, they run Brillig Understanding Inc, building natural language processing applications.

Bruce and Sue created Rose, a chatbot, to compete in the Loebner Competition. Based on the famous Turing Test, judges are tasked to distinguish between the conversations of humans and machines. The competition will end when a robot fools judges into thinking that it is human—of course, the competition hasn't ended just yet.

Yet if Rose can already hold an entertaining conversation providing thoughtful answers to my bland queries, what does the future of technology and artificial intelligence hold?

Could machines replace humans in the workplace, and what would that mean for society? Are models of education lagging behind these drastic changes?

The machines are coming

According to a report published by McKinsey Global Institute, around half of current work...

ties can technically be automated by adapting currently existing technologies. About a third of activities in 60% of jobs can be automated. This impacts 1.2 billion employees around the world, affecting $14.6 trillion in wages.

Adam Lusby leads a 'Fourth Industrial Revolution' module on the MBA program at the University of Exeter's School of Business. He describes this technology driven revolution as a "collision of the cyber and physical worlds," with different technologies mutually reinforcing and feeding each other's development.

Adam reaffirms the point that it is not entire careers that are automated, but rather component activities of different jobs. This could, however, lead to a slow erosion of occupations particularly in manufacturing industries.

Former astrophysicist, Ade McCormack, now works as a digital strategist helping businesses transform to keep apace with developments in technology. "Many workers are anxious about their bosses calling up any day to say that they're no longer needed," Ade says, "in such times, workers must learn to use their cognitive capacity in ways that create value which robots or algorithms cannot replicate. If employees look at their job specifications and feel they are totally replaceable, then you become a cog in the machine."

William Kerr is co-director of Harvard Business School's 'Managing the Future of Work' initiative. To provide a concrete example of the impact disruptive technologies have on organizations, he tells me about the case of AT&T—an American telecommunications company that traces its origin back to a telephone company founded by Alexander Graham Bell.

Internal research carried out by AT&T found that out of 240,000 of the company's workers, 100,000 would probably not be needed in a decade. This is a result of the company undergoing immense transformations accelerated by rapid developments in telecommunications technology.

In 2012, the company decided to replace '75% of its hardware with computer-operated software systems by 2020'. How does a company adopt such technology without laying off entire cities of workers?

Read: How Artificial Intelligence Will Impact Business Education In 2018


Education models must adapt

In response to these technological developments, AT&T decided to implement an incredibly ambitious retraining program for its hundreds of thousands of workers. The company restructured its job categories into fewer, more relevant titles and created an online system, 'Career Intelligence', to help employees understand these changes.

"The online system shows workers where the company is at right now, how it will develop over the next few years, and the kinds of jobs that will be in demand," William says, "it highlights the skills that workers need to learn to transition into these new roles.

“The company, however, relies on workers to take responsibility for their own training. It provides them with the resources and the platform they need to develop their careers, but encourages employees to use their own entrepreneurial skills in making that transition."

"If AT&T was to let go of those thousands of workers, they would be losing a huge part of the organization's culture," Exeter’s Adam notes. "Central to retraining these workers was asking how they would learn the skills they needed quickly and effectively, and creating flexible delivery methods so that employees can manage learning while holding on to their jobs."

Not only does AT&T's retraining model provide a blueprint for other companies undergoing such transformations, it also throws up crucial questions about our current models of learning.

According to William (pictured right), education models and industry practice were well calibrated during previous technological changes—the curriculum was simply updated so that a new generation of learners would be prepared for different kinds of tasks at work.


"At the rate that technology is developing now, we need to have a much more responsive education system," William says, "we need to teach students skills that employers will find valuable as these changes are happening in real time."

Ade agrees that traditional models of education will simply not prepare students for the changes on the technological horizon. "Education is frontloaded prior to the beginning of your professional career based on the assumption that you will be in the same job for your entire life," Ade explains, "we don't have careers for life now, we have a life of careers. Education must be sprinkled throughout the lifetime of the worker."

Ade continues that the incentive for workers to adopt this life-time of learning approach is to stay economically relevant. "Those conveyor belts creating lawyers and doctors are collapsing," Ade warns, "Institutions cannot create courses for topics that don't exist right now, but they should be prepared to give students what they require as new issues emerge within industry. There are qualities that you will need in any work you do, such as emotional intelligence and creativity. For other technical subjects, institutions may need to provide a micro-learning approach."

In the field of business education, universities are making efforts to integrate these developments within courses. For example, the University of Southern California's (USC) Marshal School of Business offers an Online MBA specifically designed for a digitally driven business landscape. Adopting a flexible approach to delivering education, candidates manage their studies while still in the labor market.

The curriculum of the online program reflects wider disruptive trends, covering how to collaborate effectively with team members around the world using technology; how to gain insights from data; and using social media as an impactful communication tool. The course also helps students understand different dimensions of leadership and contrasting managerial styles.

Read: Should I Study An Online MBA? Admissions Experts Reveal All


Leaders of the future

Speaking at the Future of Work Summit 2018 hosted at Facebook's London offices, Amrit Dhir, Google's interim head of campus in London, said "Confronting ambiguity with honesty is a form of leadership."

The leaders of tomorrow must accept that technological advancements create new kinds of complexities and uncertainties—navigating through this brave new world requires placing business considerations and societal implications at the core of decision making.

While rolling out automated trucks in the US might have high returns on investment, leaders must simultaneously think about the 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the country that would be out of work.

There is a social dimension to every business decision. For Adam, the fact that advancements in tech have pushed business professionals to engage with deeper philosophical debates can only be a positive thing.

"There's been a lot of interest in philosophy within the artificial intelligence community," Adam says "soon, people won't be able to shy away from questions like what it means to be human."