What makes us human? It's not the sort of debate you expect to be having with your bank, but according to HSBC report Human Advantage: The Power of People1, the answer is it's our innate curiosity, creativity and communication. And they are characteristics that will become increasingly valuable to employers in a not-too-distant world driven by intelligent machines.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is predicted to drive as much as 40% of additional productivity by 2030 and 14% of additional global GDP by 20352. But the price for all that economic growth will likely be a hugely disrupted jobs market: McKinsey Global Institute estimates that half of occupations will be replaced with AI by the middle of this century. Those figures do matter to both a bank's staff and its customers. But they don't necessarily mean job losses.
At HSBC's flagship Manhattan branch, Pepper the humanoid robot, developed by SoftBank Robotics, has taken over the meet and greet role – he's even posed for selfies and tells jokes. But ATM usage has increased by 6.2% and, rather than replace staff, the tireless Pepper, who never has a bad day, has freed up time for bankers to devote to more productive tasks3.
It's an example of how an artificially intelligent co-worker can improve the 9-5 for all rather than threaten it. Indeed, one CEO of a software company believes that by 2025 people will walk past an android in the corridor and not skip a beat. The only difference will be they don't find their android colleagues at the water cooler.
So, should we be worried by the prospect of a HAL or a J.A.R.V.I.S replacing us at work? Or grateful that, for the most part, AIs like Pepper will take routine and repetitive tasks out of the daily grind?
"AI has been around for 20 years… simple stuff like spam filters, chat bots and virtual agents. It's there, it's happening already and it is going to get even better. Probably everybody's job is going to be affected to some extent by AI, but not that many would be entirely displaced," says Adrian Joseph, a partner at global professional services firm EY, which is exploring its own use cases for AI across the organisation, including in audit, tax and assurance, and fraud investigation services.
"The view we have at EY is very much about 'human-in-the-loop'. It's the combination of smart technology and people that will ultimately give us the best benefits."
A branch of AI that involves humans at every stage of training, tuning and testing a machine-learning programme, human-in-the-loop is a way of combining the 'three Cs' of curiosity, creativity and communication – the warm, human intelligence identified by HSBC – with the cold processing power of a computer. That's because while even the most sophisticated machines are a long way off the human brain's ability to make an estimated billion, billion calculations a second, they trump us at reaching fast, smart decisions from vast datasets. Which is all well and good, provided the data is accurate and unbiased to begin with or you end up with a 'computer says no' scenario without any real way of understanding how it got there. It's why it's important to keep humans involved in the process.
As Chris Sykes, CEO and head of robotics at Volume, a UK marketing agency using AI to build brands, told us: "It's not AI that is going to transform your business – it's you. But you have to understand the principles of AI and how they can be applied."
Dr Pippa Malmgren, founder of aerial robotics platform, H Robotics, agrees: "Artificial intelligence has to be met with human ingenuity. It doesn't really work as a one-way thing."
She views AI as a democratising force, that will restore power and freedom to citizens at all levels and she doesn't believe it will steal jobs.
"We have had 160 years of steady automation and ever more robotics being used and what is the end result? Nearly record employment in virtually every part of the world's economy, so I'm not sure why that trend is suddenly going to reverse," she says. "It changes the nature of the work we do, but I'm not convinced it removes human beings."
Most of the 400 businesses in eight key European markets surveyed this year by The Economist Intelligence Unit concur with that. Ninety-four per cent said AI was important to solving their company's strategic challenges and 69 per cent of them expected AI to contribute to job creation, not destruction4. But there is no denying those jobs will be different.
HSBC's own recruitment drive in future may well include adverts for mixed reality experience designers, algorithm mechanics, digital process engineers, conversational interface designers, universal service advisors and partnership gateway enablers – six key roles it has identified as being critical to many sectors, not just its own. For most of them there is currently no specific training, echoing concerns expressed in The Economist Intelligence Unit survey, which showed 35% of employers believed one of the major obstacles to them harnessing the economic benefits of AI was a lack of skills among the workforce.
As the Human Advantage pointed out: "Our most human resources are increasing in value as machines take on more robotic processes and uniquely human skills come to the fore. How we develop those skills becomes a critical question for employers and workers alike."
Getting the answer right in a business will become hugely important within the next few years, it says, because it's people, not AI that will be 'even more visible as the difference between good and great'.
To learn more about the real impact of AI on corporate treasury functions, view our infographic.
To explore how HSBC can support you in future-proofing your business, contact your Relationship Manager today.
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