A significant harbinger of things to come has been somewhat lost within the global disruption occurring with the novel coronavirus pandemic. Artificial Intelligence, or AI, has played a key role in identifying and addressing the pandemic. Perhaps more importantly, AI is poised to fuel growth in the post-pandemic rebound.
The coronavirus outbreak itself was first identified using Artificial Intelligence. On December 30, 2019 an AI-driven health monitoring platform called BlueDot spotted a cluster of unusual pneumonia cases occurring in Wuhan, China. The Canadian company sent out a warning to its customers the next day — December 31. They had identified what would come to be known as COVID-19 a week before the Center for Disease Control. BlueDot’s AI helped them identify the emerging medical emergency ten days before the World Health Organization. BlueDot’s algorithms scanned vast amounts of global data, including medical bulletins, airline ticket bookings, and livestock reports to correctly project 12 of the 20 cities where the coronavirus would first arrive.
In the following weeks, researchers at the Damo Academy in China used AI to take the critical next step in confronting the outbreak. The researchers set out to sequence the novel coronavirus genome — a necessary step in order to develop tests to detect the presence of the virus in human bodies.
Back in 2002, during the SARS outbreak, genome sequencing was a laborious, months-long task. AI-driven algorithms were able to sequence a novel coronavirus in 30 minutes. This speed resulted in quick testing options that saved thousands if not millions of lives in Asia.
Researchers are now using AI in the search for a vaccine, which will likewise save millions of lives and also make the full reopening of the global economy possible.
AI has just begun. As crucial as its role has been in working to solve the largest public health crisis in human history, Artificial Intelligence will play an even bigger part in driving growth in the post-pandemic world. A technology that has been depicted as part of a dystopian future in popular culture lore — think Terminator — has arrived in the most helpful of ways. From customer service chatbots to genome sequencing, AI enables greater productivity and creates new opportunities for growth and exploration.
Now a bigger transition will occur: AI is about to take center stage. Crises have a way of accelerating technology trends that were already well underway. The pandemic will be the triggering event in accelerating AI’s use in augmenting human labor. Unlike humans, AI-powered machines are not at risk of infection. In the midst of a pandemic, AI can help provide humans with an uninterrupted chain of food supply and healthcare equipment. Industries throughout the world disrupted by social distancing requirements will turn to AI to get work done. This will hasten a change that was already inevitable before COVID-19.
There will be a risk of job losses across all different areas of the workforce as AI delivers better results while saving time and money at the same time. By some estimates, 40 percent of the world’s jobs will be automated within the next 15 years. But while AI is usually perceived as a threat to employees, senior managers and executives are certainly worried too, at least from some discussions we’ve had in recent days and months. The nature of leadership will change as AI becomes a central factor in productivity in all areas of the economy. The human side of this is quite uplifting, actually.
Successful management teams will need to invest heavily in human resources in areas that AI doesn’t excel at, such as critical thinking, empathy, and creativity.
Machines can replace tedious, repetitive tasks, but a personalized touch is often hard to beat. Therefore, whether your business makes this investment or not, you should personally invest in building the right skill set to ensure that you’re too valuable to be replaced.
In the post-pandemic economy, those with the most prized skill sets will possess a blend of business and technology acumen. They will not only understand the key levers of the intelligent machine but be able to support them. These skill sets will be dynamic. Managers and executives will need to be able to develop customer acquisition/retention/monetization strategies, manage budgets and new product launches, design creatives (ads, images, messages, etc.), manage cross-functional relationships internally (product, engineering, data, creative, marketing, etc.) and externally (media partners, ad networks, channels, agencies, etc.), and provide oversight to mitigate the external risk factors. That is, they will need the capacity to think big picture.
These skills are still beyond a machine’s capabilities. These tasks take insight, creativity, management, leadership, communication, empathy, critical thinking, and strategic planning skills that only humans possess. But instead of looking at this as humans versus machines, it’s more useful to understand that humans and machines are codependent on each other to be successful in the emerging paradigm of AI-driven growth. It will take humans to build all the key relationships to evangelize the whole AI revolution within every business and to prioritize the resources needed to succeed in the long term.
Looked at another way, AI can handle the day-to-day, repetitive tasks that in the past has used up a lot of human time, energy, and patience. This will free us all to do more executive-level thinking. Humans still need to take the lead when it comes to customer growth strategy, design, and communications. We save the boring work for our machines.
The choice isn’t humans versus machines, but rather how best to leverage the strengths and weaknesses of each. As we have seen in this pandemic, AI-driven machines are better than humans at processing large volumes of data within a short amount of time. AI intelligent machines can learn and make smarter and faster decisions based on the successes or failures of their previous tasks, and over time will produce better results. But as in the case of BlueDot, whose warnings went unheeded, it’s up to up humans to utilize the fruits of AI.
When it comes to strategic thinking or any task that exceeds an AI platform’s capacity for learning or statistical analysis, Artificial Intelligence by itself is woefully inadequate. The most powerful uses for AI need to be guided by skilled humans with broad domain expertise in order to truly produce optimal outcomes. This empowers more human creative minds and strategic thinkers to focus on the work they love rather than the boring data-rich tasks that drive them crazy. The future is about AI and humans working together as a team to produce the best results.