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Embrace AI – history suggests there is no other choice

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Key Points:

  • AI is driving a new wave of change in the workplace at an ever-increasing pace, and dividing opinion in the process
  • Evidence of how workplace skills have evolved since medieval times is hidden in plain view
  • AI will be beneficial to humanity as a whole, even if it does not benefit everyone equally
  • Instead of resistance, a better strategy for the workplace of the future is to keep learning and adapting

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Artificial Intelligence (or AI) is one of the technology innovations of the moment. And like many other significant innovations, it is dividing opinion. Proponents believe that AI will have a profoundly positive impact on our biggest challenges, like preventing disease, creating a fairer society and reducing our impact on the environment. Critics are less enthusiastic; some people believe that AI represents an existential threat to humankind. So should we welcome AI or resist it?

In medieval England, a surname (or family name) often indicated a person’s place of origin for the middle classes, or the trade they practiced in the case of a commoner. Thumb through a telephone directory in UK today and you can still find plenty of old English occupational surnames, such as Archer, Baker, Barber, Butcher, Carpenter, Clark, Cook, Cooper (a barrel-maker), Farmer, Fletcher (a person who tied the fletchings to arrows), Mason, Miller, Potter, Shepherd, Tailor, Thatcher, Wainwright (a cart-maker) or Wheeler.

Napoleon described England as a nation of shopkeepers, but the occupational surnames don’t seem to support his theory; today the most common surname in England is (still) Smith – someone who worked with iron or steel in a smithy, such as a blacksmith who made and fitted horseshoes. The prevalence of this surname today suggests there was either a big demand for metal-working skills in bygone days, or perhaps these smiths went in for unusually large families!

I’m old enough to remember a blacksmith in the village of my childhood, but today that smithy is long gone. Motor vehicles replaced horses and fewer blacksmiths were needed for the modern world. A similar fate befell the fletchers, millers, potters and wainwrights. As the world changed, demand for their skills diminished and while the surnames were passed down from generation to generation, the trades were not.

But England today is not a nation of unemployed arrow-makers or cart-menders. The world has changed and people have adapted. Search among the current employee records of the large telcos, management consultancies, IT companies or media groups and you will find the descendants of Smith, Fletcher, Wainwright et al, now gainfully employed as electronic engineers, strategy consultants, database administrators, software developers, video editors, website designers and all manner of other occupations that did not exist when their surnames originated.

Change is the only constant, even if the pace of change is accelerating. Fortunately we humans are resilient and highly adaptable. I’m not talking about major evolutionary adaptation – like growing gills for breathing underwater, as Kevin Costner’s character had done in the 1995 movie Waterworld – but the assimilation of different skills that are relevant for a changing world and which others around us value enough to pay for. This can be accomplished inside a generation, and is something that many people will do, out of necessity, several times in the course of their working lives. Adding another string to your bow, as they still say in England.

AI will benefit humanity as a whole

AI is the technology innovation of the moment, and it does represent an existential threat to many things. To ignorance. To poorly-informed decisions. To dreary repetitive work. I stand (and work) in the camp that believes AI will be beneficial to humanity as a whole, even if it does not benefit everyone equally; there are already indications that some knowledge work will be profoundly affected and that there will be a re-ordering of what is valued most highly. That is already inevitable, and trying to resist this progress in technology is as futile as a medieval arrow-maker hoping that guns won’t disrupt his livelihood. History teaches us that the genie does not go back in the bottle.

Instead of resistance, a better strategy for the workplace of the future is to watch the horizon, anticipate the changes, adopt a lifelong-learner mindset and be willing to invest in periodically updating one’s skills. Nothing new here – it might just be the same advice that the forward-thinking Arrowsmiths and Fletchers gave their children 500 years ago. And if occupational surnames come back into fashion, who knows, perhaps some of our descendants will have names like Digitalizer, Datasmith and Botwright!

(This post was previously published by the author on LinkedIn)

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