Reconstructing work

We have a new report out – Reconstructing work: Automation, artificial intelligence, and the essential role of humans – on DU Press as part of Deloitte Review #21 (DR21).

The topic of DR21 was ‘the future of work’. Our essay builds on the “Cognitive collaboration” piece published in the previous Deloitte Review (DR20).

The main point in Cognitive collaboration was that there are synergies between humans and computers. A solution crafted by a human and computer in collaboration is superior to, and different from, a solution made either human or computer in isolation. The poster child for this is freestyle chess where chess is a team sport with teams containing both humans and computers. Recently, during the development of our report on ‘should everyone learn how to code’ (To code to not to code, is that the question? out the other week, but more on that later), we found emerging evidence that this is a unique and teachable skill that crosses multiple domains.

With this new essay we started by thinking about how one might apply this freestyle chess model to more pedestrian work environments. We found that coming up with a clean division of labour between – breaking the problem into seperate tasks for human and machine – was clumsy at best. However if you think of AI as realising *behaviours* to solve *problems*, rather than prosecuting *tasks* to create *products*, then integrating human and machine is much easier. This aligns better with the nature of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.

As we say is a forthcoming report:

AI or ‘cognitive computing’ […] are better thought of as automating behaviours rather than tasks. Recognising a kitten in a photo from the internet, or avoiding a pedestrian that has stumbled onto the road, might be construed as a task, though it is more natural to think of it as a behaviour. Task implies a piece of work to be done or undertaken, an action (a technique) we choose to do. Behaviour, on the other hand, implies responding to the changing world around us, a reflex. We don’t choose to recognise a kitten or avoid the pedestrian, though we might choose (or not) to hammer in a nail when one is presented. A behaviour is something we reflexively do in response to appropriate stimulus (an image of a kitten, or even a kitten itself poised in-front of us, or the errant pedestrian).

The radical conclusion from this is that there is no knowledge or skill unique to a human. That’s because knowledge and skill – in this context – are defined relative to a task. We’re at a point that if we can define a task then we can automate it (given cost-benefit) so consequently there are no knowledge or skills unique to humans.

What separates us from the robots is our ability to work together to make sense of the world and create new knowledge, knowledge that can then be baked in machines to make it more precise and efficient. If we want to move forward, and deliver on the promise of AI and cognitive computing, then we need to shift the foundation of work. Hence the title: we need to “reconstruct work”.

The full essay is on the DP site, so head over and check it out.