Rise of the machines: is AI about to steal your job?

by Dan Matthews / 9/25/2017 11:13:06 AM

The world’s cleverest innovators are creating software that will vastly improve performance levels achieved by human workers, leading to efficient economies, higher profits…and job losses. How safe is project management in a world where robots do everything?

When it comes to the UK jobs market, we’ve never had it so good. In July, the number of people out of work fell to 1.49 million, its lowest level since 1975. Meanwhile, the headcount of pre-retirement age adults in employment climbed to 32 million, or 74.9% - the largest total ever recorded.

Arguments about zero-hours contracts, productivity and low pay aside, this has been an astronomical achievement, particularly in light of the changeable global environment and a series of economic and political shocks in recent years.

But we shouldn’t put our feet up just yet; things are about to change. Incoming turbulence in the jobs market will not be the result of Brexit, the Trump presidency, a catastrophic mistake by a minister or rogue employers, but because of technology.

More specifically, artificial intelligence and automation: two related inventions that are steadily chipping away at the need for human labour. Those who scoff should consider AmazonGo, a cashier-less concept in retail coming to a store near you.

Supermarkets have used ‘swipe and go’ checkouts for years, but Amazon’s new model replaces cashiers with software and removes great chunks of admin from the shopping experience.

Likewise, people have steadily been removed from key areas of the economy including logistics, bookkeeping and manufacturing. The brightest minds are working on driverless vehicles, hotels with no check-in desk and even magazine articles that write themselves (gulp).

According to PwC, as many as three-in-10 jobs could go by 2030, just 13 years from now. If you’re a 40 year-old employee, it’s inconceivable that your job will exist in its current form by the time you retire. The most under-threat jobs are those that are rules-based, manual and routine, but other more complex roles will go as well.

AI: friend or foe?

What about project management? Of course, every PM role is different across industry and the skills required vary from a deep understanding of the core principles to ‘softer’ attributes such as organisation, communication and decision-making.

This intricacy, combined with the demand for high-level human traits, is a sturdy buffer against technology’s digital onslaught. Many experts believe that while job specs are likely to evolve dramatically in future, AI and automation will more likely become key allies than deadly rivals.

“As project managers evolve, adopt new tools and continue to innovate with technology, it is the most fundamental aspects of our jobs that are feeling the greatest benefits,” says Alice Lock, project director at WONDER London.

“While we are a far cry from totally handing project management over to automation and AI, it is enabling us to achieve higher quality outputs, smarter use of time, greater collaboration across teams and scalability.”

And how. Research by AXELOS shows well over half of project managers believe machine learning – a branch of AI – will have a “profound impact” on the profession. It will make certain tasks easier, including processes that require a large amount of data-crunching and will facilitate better insights delivered instantly.

Cameron Stewart, head of PPM at AXELOS, says AI will reduce organisations’ reliance on subject matter experts, because users will derive information from software that has ‘learned’ from past events.

“If I am a project manager trying implement a CRM system I might be able to use AI to provide information about best CRM practice and lessons learned from thousands of similar projects,” he explains.

“If AI can analyse how projects have performed in the past, it can provide an indication of how a similar project is likely to progress. That will be a massive leap forward – it will increase productivity as tasks can be completed faster and allow us to better understand the long-term benefits of a project.”

But while information-gathering is taking a quantum leap forward, machines will find it harder to replicate the emotional intelligence required to lead large teams of individuals, each with their own priorities and particular needs.

Computers can count, organise data, give details of best practice and alert users as to past mistakes. They are far less good at empathy and, for now at least, can’t help us form strong bonds with people of the type that makes success more likely.

A great leap forward

In summary, new tech will help people get organised and retrieve vital information much faster than before. It will enable them to display their findings, identify bumps in the road and build a case for action with top level decision-makers.

There’s already a lot of software to choose from. It ranges from enterprise-level professional programmes to consumer-grade technology that often does a job just as well.

“I love the whole ‘personal assistant’ idea with the next version of Siri or Echo running my life for me,” says Rachel Roberts, head of Business Solutions at independent UK law firm Burges Salmon. “If I was a project director on a construction project or property development, then VR and visualisation would be a great way of ‘seeing’ progress.”

Claus Jepsen, chief architect at Unit4, agrees that apparently simple applications widely adopted in consumer markets will also become game-changers for project managers. Particularly exciting, he says, is the prospect of being able to do away with instruction manuals.  

“Digital assistants that use natural language are particularly exciting. Rather than have to learn a new system and its full functionality, a project manager will be able to simply ask for information or tell the system, in his own words, about updates to a project or plan.”

If removing the need for humans to learn how to use technology will greatly increase its efficacy in the short-term, so will eliminating the process of manually inputting data into a system before it is ready to use.

Howard Williams, marketing director of automation expert, Parker Software, says current AI tools rely on people to input data correctly, which can create a challenge in itself. But soon we will see updates that take care of this too.

“We will see AI emerging that can make good enough assumptions about missing data to fill in any blanks accurately, encourage better practice among teams and create new layers of metadata. This is particularly exciting as it will enable AI to overcome data input issues, allowing it to really understand the state of a project and provide meaningful advice.”

How bright is the future?

The next decade will witness an enormous amount of development in the AI space. Tools will be able to complete increasingly intricate tasks, removing ever greater chunks from the human workload. Companies are already morphing to fit this new reality, for example by moving IT systems to the cloud from old legacy stacks.

Organisations’ ability to change quickly will provide firm foundations for AI, with concepts like lean and agile helping to speed up adoption of products as they hit the market.

Howard Williams at Parker Software says this will lead to progressively more sophisticated generations of AI: “We will see AI tools move from their niche focuses in a project and cover much wider functionality. The next generation of AI will expand on its current understanding, providing real, actionable indicators of a team and project performance.

“Furthermore, the subsequent generation to that will bring about the use of metadata, a complex analysis of data, to deliver meaningful advice to improve project performance.”

For teams, automation and AI will create ever-stronger bonds between the various elements of project, programme and portfolio management, adds Rachel Roberts at Burges Salmon.

“You could argue that the role of a PM is to connect everything properly: resource planning, milestones, stakeholders and so on. I think it is the connecting ability of advanced technologies that will really make the difference.”

Will technology make people redundant? No. Will it allow them to achieve a lot more in the same timeframe? Certainly. For the foreseeable future people, not robots, will form the relationships, make the decisions and communicate progress. Technology will simply grease the wheels.

Alice Lock and WONDER London explains why: “When I’m interviewing for new recruits, above all I look at how they’ve responded to things going wrong and the experience they have gained. Only then can you start to establish whether or not they will react with the right solutions at any given time. None of this can be achieved via machine learning, which is essentially maths.

“What a great project manager brings to situations that are often highly pressurised is a natural and emotional style of quantum thinking. They can draw on a wealth of experience, work out solutions for specific environments, move parts strategically and manage different personalities. It’s this web of processes that tech has yet to crack.”

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