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AI forecast: ‘Disruption, then productivity’

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There is growing concern about all the white-collar jobs that will disappear with the spread of machine learning and AI. It gets me thinking about slide rules.

The connection is that innovation causes disruptions, then our work and our lives become more productive and interesting. Artificial intelligence is shaking up the job market and will do so for a long time, but there will be many positive developments to counterbalance the negatives. To keep things in perspective it can be helpful to look back on our own experiences with technological change.

The first time I became aware of this ‘disruptive / productive’ dynamic was during my high school years back in the 1970s. At my school, we had a group of very intelligent classmates who populated the calculus and physics classes and dreamed of becoming engineers and astronauts and airline pilots.

My friends and I referred to them as ‘the Slide Rule Gang’ because they were never without their mechanical analog computers. We teased them a bit about their slide rule holsters and their pocket protectors, but we also admired their brains, their discipline and their ambition. These kids were smart.

And they really loved their slide rules. That is, until the hand-held electronic calculators began to appear at the local Radio Shack. (For those unfamiliar with Radio Shack, imagine an Apple Store for your grandparents. Radio Shack didn’t have the cool vibe, but back in the day it was the place for kids to find the newest technology).

Those early hand calculators from Japan seemed as big as shoe boxes — it was the 1970s and miniaturization was in its infancy — but our Slide Rulers embraced them overnight. When I asked one of the guys how he could be so quick to abandon his favorite computational ‘toy’, he had a ready answer for me: “I can do twice the work in half the time, and that lets me focus on the interesting stuff.”

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It turned out that the calculators briefly disrupted things for the Slide Rule Gang, then allowed them to work smarter and faster. Disruption, then greater productivity and more interesting work.

That explanation came back to me several years later when I was writing for my university newspaper. I began working as a reporter in 1979 in an old-fashioned newsroom, complete with clacking typewriters and messy carbon paper to make copies. By the time I graduated in 1982 the entire newspaper was being produced on noiseless word processors, and carbon paper was a messy, fast-receding memory.

It turned out that the word processors briefly disrupted the newsroom, then allowed the reporters and editors to work smarter and faster. As with the calculators, disruption quickly led to greater speed, scope, and productivity.

I could go on with tales of fax machines, personal computers, and financial spreadsheets, but you’ve already seen the point: innovations lead to the disruptions, then we become more productive and our work can become even more interesting.

This is the pattern we can expect to see with machine learning and artificial intelligence. We are beginning to feel the impact of these developments in the workplace, and there is no question that some attractive jobs will disappear as their tasks are taken over by machines.

But it is also certain that new fields, specializations and even professions will emerge as a result of AI, and that is an exciting prospect. Innovation has been inspiring creativity and generating employment for people for thousands of years, and it isn’t going to stop now.

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So that is the AI forecast for today: widely-scattered disruption, followed by greater productivity and an even more interesting world. Stay tuned.

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Mark Brown
Mark Brown works with executives who are striving to become more effective leaders. An American based in Europe since 1994, Mark has worked extensively as a facilitator, leadership consultant, and executive coach across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas, with individuals of 75 nationalities. He is currently a director of a Portuguese company providing tri-lingual leadership development to firms worldwide. Mark holds an MBA from Solvay Business School (ULB) in Brussels, an MA from SAIS - Johns Hopkins in Washington, D.C., a diploma from Universidad de Belgrano in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and a BA from the University of Florida. A highly experienced executive coach and mentor, he holds a PCC from the International Coach Federation (ICF). Mark has published numerous articles on executive coaching, leadership development, and business strategy and published his first book in 2016, ‘The Empathic Enterprise: Winning by Staying Human in A Digital Age’. He works comfortably in English, Spanish and Portuguese and resides with his wife in Lisbon, Portugal.

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