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Stop Saying AI Can't Replace Humans

To change your world, AI does not need to replace humans — it just needs to displace you. So stop saying that AI can’t replace humans, and start asking, “Can AI displace me?”

You Don’t Need to Be Totally Replaced by a Sentient AI System to Lose Your Job

We are not close enough to general-knowledge artificial intelligence to consider a world where such a system could completely replace a cognitive nonrepetitive (white-collar) worker. And while Hollywood and sensationalist reporting would have you believe otherwise, malevolent AI systems and sentient cyborgs should not be the subject of any serious discussion about job loss. The most probable future is far scarier.

Man/Machine Partnerships

As I recently wrote in “Partner, or Die!,” the best way to prepare yourself for the accelerating onslaught of AI and machine learning systems is to learn to partner with them. We are tool users; these systems are tools. Just as the steam engine amplified the power of our muscles, computers amplify the power of our brains. We can partner with machines to create competitive advantage for ourselves. But the devil is in the details.

Partial Replacement, Complete Threat

Everyone’s new, short-term goal is to form strong, competitive, awesome man/machine partnerships. But people are expensive! So the results of your man/machine partnership will have to be more productive than a partnership formed by cheaper laborers. If you’re a 50-plus-year-old auditor making over $500,000 annually, then a 20-something-year-old, newly minted CPA and his or her trusty AI companion are going to do your job for less than 25% of what you’re being paid. Guess how long management is going to let that continue?

You’ve Got It Wrong – This Is Where Experience and Wisdom Come In

Yes. This is exactly where experience and wisdom become exceptionally important. But remember, to change your world, AI does not need to replace humans – it just needs to replace you.

If there are 15 high-level executives with equal experience and wisdom and the company has retrained or recruited scores of new, significantly more productive man/machine pairs that can do 90% of the work in a fraction of the time, your firm will need fewer (many fewer) experienced and wise (read, expensive) cognitive nonrepetitive workers to achieve its business objectives. If the number of senior executives is reduced from 15 to five, will you make the cut?

Perhaps everyone will keep their jobs and your company will organically grow. Or, more likely, senior management will see this as an exceptional cost-cutting opportunity and will choose to increase margins and quarterly earnings. Which will happen at your firm? “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future,” as Yoda famously said.

It’s Not Just AI at Your Company; It’s AI-Enhanced Competition

Amazon is the epicenter of the seismic activity that is reshaping the retail industry. Aphorisms about Amazon’s ability to destroy more jobs than it creates abound. But one thing is certain: Amazon’s ability to inflict pain on other retailers is directly attributable to its technical superiority. From recommendation engines, to freight routing, to inventory management, to pricing, to web scraping, to search, to any other data-driven system you can think of, Amazon is simply better than everyone else.

Simple Strategy, Complex Execution

The lesson here is very clear. You must become the “Amazon” of your chosen field. How? First, invent the future. You must try to see the world as it will become. Saying that “it’s all about data” is not the same as understanding the sources and uses of data that will shape your future. Then, it’s up to you. How much time are you willing to invest in yourself to protect your posterity? To be “Amazoned” is a new verb percolating up from Dante’s Fourth Circle of Hell. Don’t let it happen to you.

Bonus Sci-Fi Quiz: Do you know the books, movies, and TV series these fictional sentient systems are associated with? Robot B-9 “Robby,” the copies of Dr. Roger Korby or James T. Kirk (Star Trek, obviously, but can you name the series and the episode?), C3-P0 (Star Wars, of course, but how does it greet every new life form it meets?), Mother, WOPR, Skynet, Optimus Prime, Lieutenant Commander Data, The Matrix, V.I.K.I., Sonny, and my new favorite mechanical device, Dolores Abernathy.

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