Despite a barrage of dire predictions, it’s important to recognise that the onslaught of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics has the capacity to add as much good to the human condition as it does to destroy it.

That’s something futurist Shara Evans, the founder of technology analyst firm Market Clarity, wants superannuation fund executives to remember as they think about the effects of AI on their industry.

One way she suggests investors measure companies in the future is by evaluating their underlying rationale and ethical approach to deploying such potentially disruptive technology.

Given the speed at which AI, robotics and other digital technologies are being applied globally, Evans warns institutional asset owners that they can’t remain agnostic on the pros and cons of these new technologies. She recommends super funds quickly establish a framework to evaluate the capacity of this technology to either enhance or disrupt an industry or a specific company.

Ethical responsibility

While super industry executives and trustees may recognise that many jobs will fundamentally change, what they currently lack, Evans adds, is a good understanding of the massive impact it will have on their investment portfolios.

“They need to get a better understanding of how AI and robotics are being used by the assets they’re invested in now – or into the future – and of their future plans to invest in automation,” Evans says. “Super execs should share an ethical responsibility to use their leverage as shareholders to ‘agitate’ for companies to behave in a certain way when deploying these technologies; for example, [by encouraging companies to invest] in reskilling workers whose current jobs are displaced by automation.”

When seeking useful examples of how scalable technologies can be applied to real-world situations, Evans recommends looking at companies such as Amazon, which now deploys more than 40,000 robots. Then there’s the anomalous pattern detection AI called the adaptive real-time individual change identifier (Aric), which has innumerable applications for the fintech and e-commerce sectors.

Re-skill and re-deploy

The often-overlooked aspect of applying these new technologies to reduce costs through automation, Evans says, is how staff can be reskilled and redeployed as opposed to being laid off. There is no shortage of examples in mining and agriculture where automation has prevented people from being exposed to more dangerous applications, and that’s fundamentally good.

There are also companies like Domino’s Pizza, which is trialling delivery bots and drones to help meet its 30-minute delivery target, while removing the need to use a two-tonne vehicle to deliver a 40-gram product. While this may have reduced the pizza chain’s need for drivers, Evans says it has arguably enabled the company to hire more staff through its new-store launch, and there are no known plans to lay off any of the current delivery drivers.

“Clearly, the issue around whether AI and robotics are good or bad depends on how [they] will integrate into the workforce,” Evans says. “When companies start assessing what these technologies can do internally, they should involve staff in the discussion around what can and can’t be automated within a given job role – and how that job role can be transformed with the use of technology.”

Assuming companies are serious about reskilling, Evans argues there’s no reason dire predictions of AI, robotics and digital technologies replacing up to half of the world’s jobs within 20 years have to become a reality. While a given role may disappear, it’s fundamentally important to society, Evans says, that affected workers are provided with skill-sets to move into emerging jobs of the future.

“To ensure we don’t have mass unemployment, companies the world over need to get better informed about how they might be able to free up staff to handle more complex applications,” Evans says. “This will force companies – especially in banking and fintech – to rethink and potentially widen their core business. It may even become a point of competitive advantage.”

Shara Evans will deliver a keynote address titled “Will our future be digitally disrupted or digitally enhanced?” at the FEAL National Conference in Melbourne on August 3, 2017. For more information or to register, visit the event website.

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