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Artificial Intelligence: The Proof is in the Pudding

By Elmore Alexander | 05/03/2017 | 10:33 AM

While it is clear from my last several blogs that I believe that automation will drive a major restructuring of the world economy, I do not think that we are facing an end to work as we know it.  As I argued in my last blog, driverless trucks will create new jobs and demand new organizational structures.  Don't forget that the introduction of standardized shipping containers a half century ago actually increased longshoremen employment by integrating truck, rail and sea shipping thereby increasing the overall efficiency of the industry.[i]

I was at a presentation last week where an information technology prognosticator of some acclaim lamented the prospects for future employment.  The picture he painted was one where everyone was replaced by an Alexa controlled robot powered by the latest artificial intelligence (AI) apps.  No jobs are safe in this brave new world.  This is not a credible picture of future organizations.  The world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, who will always be known as the one who lost to Big Blue (20 years ago!), states the position eloquently:

Waxing nostalgic about jobs lost to technology is little better than complaining that antibiotics put too many gravediggers out of work.  The transfer of labor from humans to our inventions is nothing less than the history of civilization.  It is inseparable from centuries of rising living standards and improvements in human rights.[ii]

Let me tell you why I think Kasparov is right.

First, as Kasparov notes in his article, advancing technology has always created more and new jobs.  He offers a quick list including app designers, 3-D print engineers and genetic counselors.  These displacements create short-term adjustment problems as universities and technical training programs implement new curricula and workers make their way through training.  Unfortunately, these feedback loops are sometimes slow resulting in significant amounts of frictional unemployment.  There are long-term adjustment problems as well since many workers do not want to be or cannot be retrained.  This may justify, as I have argued in earlier posts, readjustment compensation for displaced workers.  

Second, creativity is a uniquely human capability.  A recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Tony McCaffrey (“There Will Always Be Limits to How Creative a Computer Can Be”) provides excellent analysis of this point.  While AlphaGo, the latest computer program capable of beating world champions (the ancient game of Go in this case) was able to develop an almost unbeatable approach to playing Go, its decision making patterns could neither be either understood nor summarized for external review.  How limiting is the factor?  McCaffrey and his colleague Lee Spector developed a mathematical proof establishing that even the fastest computer cannot explore all of the options posed by a problem.   Thus, there are serious limits on the ability of a computer program to analyze complex problems and understand how systems work.  Work life is more than playing Go or Chess.

Third, computer programs in isolation may not even be the optimal strategy for winning Go and Chess.  While much has been made of the inability of world masters to beat computer programs at board games, the success of individuals against computer programs in certain circumstances has received much less attention.  Stephen Cramton and Zackary Stephen, a couple of amateur chess players, developed a computer program to assist them in playing chess.  This combination of computer program and humans was able to win a tournament against both master level players and various computer programs.[iii]  This is a very interesting result. It suggests not only that there are elements of chess strategy that are not well duplicated by a computer program but also that the social facilitation of group decision making that has been long documented in the group dynamics literature is still important in the age of automation.  Teams are a ubiquitous element of organizational life and AI is not going to change that.  I suspect it will make teams even more important. 

What does this mean for logistics?  We should be excited at the prospects of improved efficiencies that will be offered by AI applications to mechanical tasks from driving trucks to operating warehouses.  The optimal application of these technologies will involve computer programs serving as aids to the decision making and operating processes.  The challenge will be to develop organizational structures that facilitate the synergy between decision makers and AI.  It is clear to me, however, that the winners will be those organizations that can effectively orchestrate this combination.

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[i] Mark Levinson, The Box (2nd Edition). Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2016.

[ii] Garry Kasparov, “Learning to Love Intelligent Machines,” Wall Street Journal, April 14, 2017.

[iii] Chris Baraniuk, “The Cyborg Chess Players That Can’t Be Beaten,” BBC Future, December 4, 2015 (http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20151201-the-cyborg-chess-players-that-cant-be-beaten?ocid=ww.social.link.email).

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About Elmore Alexander

Elmore Alexander

Elmore Alexander is Dean and Professor of Management in the Louis Ricciardi College of Business at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Prior to joining Bridgewater State, he served as Dean and Professor in the School of Management at Marist College. Previously, Dr. Alexander was Dean of the School of Business Administration at Philadelphia University, Director of the Division of Business and Management at Johns Hopkins University, Associate Dean and Chair of the Management Department within the Kogod School of Business at American University in Washington, D.C. and Professor of Management and Director of the Fogelman Executive Center at the University of Memphis.



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