Whenever artificial intelligence comes up in conversation, cautious tech enthusiasts often follow with a common question: Are the machines coming to take my job?
Much of what AI technology can accomplish today revolves around automation, according to some of the IT channel's leading vendors. However, experts like SAS Chief Data Scientist Wayne Thompson are quick to note that the world has "a long way to go" before machines can behave as humans do.
"AI is really pragmatic today. It is about automation. It is about making mundane tasks simpler," Thompson said during a roundtable discussion organized by CRN. "One of the hottest areas in AI right now is robotic processing, where you are trying to (automate) all these legacy systems – like filing a claim. Every insurance company wants to automate that, end-to-end."
IBM channel chief David Wilson thinks automation only constitutes a small part of the value AI technology could ultimately deliver to businesses. He likened AI to the cloud, which was initially perceived as a "cost-saving exercise" but ultimately became a destination for innovative services; a similar evolution could take place around AI, he said.
"There will be new jobs coming up. New opportunities based on machine-learning. Being able to apply (AI) in ways that are not imaginable today," Wilson said. "That's the real opportunity. Everybody used to talk about moving to the cloud to save money. Now it's just a given, and we're talking about innovating in the cloud."
Wilson pointed to verticals such as education, where AI could augment a human's abilities to teach young students, and health care, where he said IBM Watson can support doctors and cancer studies, as areas where next-generation jobs could begin to flourish.
While most agreed that automation remains a huge component of existing AI capabilities – Aruba Networks Senior Director of Data Science Jisheng Wang thinks more than half of all AI-infused products are built around automation – that reality doesn't necessarily equate to mass layoffs.
Terri Snell, VP of solution go to market for SAP's North America business, sees AI as a tremendous opportunity for businesses to spend more of their time focused on complex tasks that require critical thinking.
"How can we do things better and maybe free up people's time who might be doing menial tasks to do something more valuable for a company? I would look at it through a lens of business process re-engineering," Snell said.
Wang echoed similar sentiments, noting that AI capabilities are a key part of Aruba's focus on optimizing network security operations. "When we build the AI product, we always want to plug a human into the product. We're not replacing the human with the product. We're actually using the product to empower them," he said.
Of course, some jobs are much more easily automated than others. The manufacturing industry is a well-known, early example of robotic process automation eliminating jobs. Thompson sees other spaces with similar risk, but reasons that a majority of professions require irreplaceable human reasoning.
"I don't recommend you be a taxi cab driver. Truck driver. I don't recommend that you work in any kind of real just straight-up manufacturing process," Thompson said. "I don't even know if you should be a radiologist. I think that AI can help that radiologist now … Right now, the kicker is AI doesn't reason like a human. And maybe we'll get there, but it doesn't think like you do. And that can't be taken away from many, many jobs, but I think it can help you in your job."
Mike Hadley, President and CEO of Boston-based solution provider iCorps Technologies, sees AI easily applying to managed services, where password resets and other simple, common issues could be solved more proactively and efficiently. However, he said iCorps would never want to replace anyone working the help desk.
"We don't even have an automated attendant. We want a person answering the phone," Hadley told CRN. "It's about the level of service we provide being enough to keep things from being a problem – being ahead of it. I'm not saying we want to change the way we're delivering services. I'm saying I want to do it more productively and proactively."
CRN wrapped up its roundtable discussion by asking each of the vendor executives present to pinpoint the biggest myth when it comes to pushing AI technology through the channel. Here's what they said:
- Wilson: "It's tough to start, but the tools are available. Just go out and start using it today."
- Snell: "That it's too complicated. People think it's too complicated, but it doesn't have to be."
- Rahul Kashyap, CTO, Cylance: "The fear of unknown. It's a new technology and a new trend. That's the barrier for a lot of people."
- Thompson: "Get analytical. A lot of people are trying to fake you out (with AI). Get with the analytics and use that. You'll get ahead, and you'll be a leader in your space."
- Wang: "In the enterprise world, it's trust. It's in action. Start selling the product to the end-user. We're willing to listen to feedback. Where's the gap, and how do we cover the gap?"
- Israel Barack, CISO, Cybereason: "Some of the more sophisticated partner organizations have heard the terminology many times before. Some of them had started thinking that AI itself is a myth. It's more about understanding what's on the table today. What can they deliver? What kind of use cases can generate value out of these technologies?"