Populism v Artificial Intelligence

Jan 30, 2017
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The new populism, which appeals to the old industrial heartlands of the US and Europe, is not unrelated to two other major strategic business themes: the emergence of job-destroying AI and relentless staff disengagement. Business leaders and thinkers may need to consider their responses to all three together.

Evidence of these broader linkages was apparent at that bastion of the political-business elite, this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. Indeed, some ideas that were once the domain of the utopian Left—such as a universal income—were discussed. As FT’s Tim Bradshaw reports in this video senior business leaders are taking the job implications of AI far more seriously in the wake of the political backlash in the US. IT leaders are now acknowledging that ‘real people are involved.’ Interestingly, McKinsey research suggests that accountants are most at threat, while manual workers are safest.

Executives hope that AI and robotics, widely deemed vital for future global growth, will augment rather than replace workers. Others, however, fear that tech companies will simply grab all the benefits of this next economic revolution, prompting a popular backlash against silicon valley not dissimilar to the banker bashing of recent years.

Time to act is short. As Infosys CEO Vishal Sikka writes in the FT, artificial intelligence and automation technologies are already starting to affect our work and daily lives. But ‘we are still in the early stages of understanding how intelligent systems can work with people more seamlessly.’ Mr Sikka urges organisations ‘to make life-long learning resources available for employees to enhance skills development’. Infosys is rethinking its training infrastructure with, for example, ‘nanodegrees’ to help employees acquire new skills rapidly at scale.

Meanwhile, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella  is future proofing his staff, creating a 5000-strong AI team of academics and engineers to design the operating system of the future. ‘Even if the learn-it-all starts with less innate capability, they will always do better than the know-it-all.’

Paul Lewis

Editorial director, Headspring

Paul Lewis is a writer and editor, specialising in business, management, economics and politics.