There has been a considerable amount of discussion regarding the wealth gap and how it's set to grow due to technological innovations, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics. Whether the wealth gap will widen as a result of these innovations may, or may not, prove to be true—only time will tell. However, we should give equal thought to the significant opportunities that these technologies, available now and in the future, will bring to close the gap.
It's useful to begin with a real-life example to demonstrate the impact that AI and Robotics have on the work of today. Consider Rethink Robotic's Baxter—a robot with two arms, an LCD face and the ability to be taught how to complete a broad range of tasks. What impact is it having upon factory line work? Well, Baxter can complete many of the tasks of factory line workers by being trained to carry out new jobs more easily than its robotic predecessors. Baxter leverages machine learning and computer vision technologies, to name a few. The comparatively low cost of Baxter (around $22,000) and the flexibility and ease of retraining it creates the possibility to automate a new range of roles. Such technological progress has brought up many questions, for example, how can workers being replaced by robots re-skill themselves quickly enough in an era of such rapid change?
If we look at this from another perspective, one recognises the opportunities that arise to create wealth through the introduction of new technology. Consider this, when Mo Ibrahim launched Celtel in Africa to set up the infrastructure to support mobile phones, it enabled a new wave of possibilities, for example, mobile banking - many citizens were able to enjoy the benefits of mobile banking without actually having a bank account. This technology has enabled frictionless transfers of money, helping small businesses to complete transactions otherwise not possible. Whilst estimates vary, the adoption of Kenya’s M-Pesa (a mobile phone-based money transfer service) has increased the income of rural households from anywhere between 5 to 30 percent. Technology enables those without the luxury of significant Research & Development budgets to turn ideas into businesses and is reducing the cost of doing so.
Technology enables those without the luxury of significant Research & Development budgets to turn ideas into businesses and is reducing the cost of doing so.
A challenge to realising this potential, however, is in the education offered to and therefore knowledge of people from less wealthy backgrounds—some of which would expect to do the jobs being taken over by robots. To support equal opportunities to create wealth, people from all walks of life need to be educated equally in commercial awareness and the application of emerging technologies. People are products of their environment, and environments can vary widely. So, how can we best educate the masses and make people more commercially aware? Well, education technology (or “EdTech”) supported with AI may be able to tackle part of this problem by enabling personalised learning and furthermore, platforms for learning are more accessible today through digital channels (e.g. Khan Academy). Take the recent example of ‘Jill Watson’, a digitally intelligent teaching assistant - powered by IBM Watson - introduced to support masters students on an online course in computer science at Georgia Tech. While such systems can answer simple questions from students, they support the scalability and therefore reach of online education platforms. Such platforms provide an affordable method of supporting people to re-skill themselves, continuously, throughout their career paths as required, or desired.
Peter Diamandis, a pioneer in the field of innovation, chairman of the X Prize Foundation and executive chairman of Singularity University, supports a similar view about the positive impacts of technology. Peter believes the world is heading towards an era of abundance, in which everyone will have access to first-world grade resources. In his book Abundance, he suggests that “humanity...is now entering a period of radical transformation in which technology has the potential to significantly raise the basic standards of living for every man, woman, and child on the planet.” Such a perspective helps us to recognise the potential for the application of emerging technologies to impact the wealth gap and suggests that this is a necessary step in tackling the challenge.
The playing field needs to be levelled to give everyone an equal opportunity at wealth creation. Emerging technologies such as AI, easy access to knowledge via digital channels such as Khan Academy, and education on commercial awareness will support innovation and will begin to level the playing field for getting ideas off of the ground and being able to re-skill effectively. People need to understand what's out there and possible, in order to be able to start learning about the things that can help them to succeed in a technology-led future. It is the responsibility of those with the knowledge and the means of distributing this knowledge to address this.
Jas works for PwC, as part of a team using innovation and emerging technologies to disrupt business models and traditional ways of working. He creates alliances with AI start-ups and academic institutions as part of this role, and has a particular focus on how the application of AI can be leveraged in creating the businesses of the future, and help today’s businesses to remain competitive. All views expressed in this blog are his own.
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