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AI and the knowledge economy

AI and the knowledge economy

Infinite pentominoes, generated by Midjourney

Infinite pentominoes, generated by Midjourney

Breathless excitement for new technologies can sometimes distract from bigger issues that matter. Consider the fervour surrounding NFTs, the hype for the metaverse, and the commotion about social audio.

Generative AI isn't immune to this zeal. I recently attended a talk where the hype was so palpable that the speaker suggested we might as well send half the workforce home because AI was that much of a game changer. Let's hope nobody acted on that suggestion.

But it's essential to acknowledge that denying or avoiding the significance of AI is a mistake. Those who assert that individuals using AI will pose strong competition to those who don't are correct. While it's easy to get caught up in the speed and convenience AI offers in the knowledge economy, we must also recognize the fundamental shifts it triggers in how we think and communicate. This, I believe, is core to what really matters.

My exploration of AI involves dozens of experiments and consistent use in rote tasks, specifically in the marketing and communications sector. Within this sector, where writing, comprehension, data analysis, speed, storytelling, and creative problem-solving all hold great value, AI plays a deeply transformative role that goes beyond the obvious efficiencies.

Appreciate the shift

In the early days of the internet, the focus was on getting online and writing code to gain entry to the web. Even during the mobile and Web 2.0 eras, the figurative price of admission remained somewhat similar but with better tools. Social media connected everyone, redefining markets as huge digital conversations and billions of virtual interactions. A mass democratization through technology, though, as it later turned out, not without its deeply addictive side effects and misinformative downsides.

AI marks a full step change from all of this. It's remarkably and immediately accessible to the knowledge economy, with little to no technical acumen needed. You don’t have to build anything. You can start right now, without training, and accomplish astonishing tasks quickly. This immediate disruption is evident: a two-minute experiment can yield surprising, delightful, or mind-blowing results.

Because of the low barrier to entry, speed of adoption is unprecedented, with retention rates to match. Accepting the depth and permanence of this change is a first small step for any leader, knowledge worker, or organization.

A truly disruptive user interface

When was the last time you encountered a genuinely new and unique user interface (UI)? Virtual reality might come to mind, but apart from that, the patterns for interacting with data and the web have remained consistent for a generation. We scroll, click, link, visit, refresh, load, subscribe, save, share. Along the way, we leave behind canyons of data that provide remarkable insights into the human condition.

Generative AI tools offer a refreshingly different, deceptively simple UI. They challenge how we interact with data and the web today. This will affect how we source, store, and manage data and it reshapes the framework of the web as we know it.

To make this tangible, consider a task where you need to gather information about five organizations in a sector, including their mission, vision, stance on ESG, and involvement in social justice issues. Using traditional desk research methods, you'd open multiple browser tabs, visit websites, analyze social media content, and use various tools to scrape and synthesize data.

Now, imagine doing the same task using a good AI platform (most of them public for less than one year). With prompt engineering, you could achieve similar results, but you'd bypass most, if not all, the activities mentioned earlier. No tabs, clicking, scrolling, or annotating. Your attention wouldn't be divided between design elements, colours, marketing tactics, or navigation menus.

This workflow is genuinely disruptive. You'd leave no digital footprint. You would skirt every marketing funnel. Instead, you'd rely on a simple interface with a single box and a button, guided by your ability to frame questions. You might even do this all through voice, or partly.

Raises and lowers the bar

AI's impact on the knowledge economy undeniably enhances efficiency. It considerably expedites tasks associated with data analysis, coding, writing, and technical work, pushing the boundaries of what we can achieve. And quality can be high.

But with this performance comes potential to reduce standards, luring us into laziness and complacency. AI-generated responses may appear unquestionably accurate, exude confidence, and fulfill the task's requirements, rendering them deceptively easy to embrace and accept. We risk blunting intellectual acuity on a whetstone of convenience.

Work cultures and environments that foster critical thinking and scrutiny, balanced with execution, must be nurtured to counter this possibility.

At work, what we do is who we are

In the knowledge economy, work plays a defining role in our lives. It reflects what we learned in school, what we write, create, and how we apply ideas to solve challenges. It is the expertise we’ve hung our hat on and the group we’ve chosen to belong to. It can be how we find meaning in our professional lives, provided there's meaning to be found.

But what happens when our identity becomes a commodity? History provides some answers to this question. The widespread adoption of mass production technologies arguably contributed to social upheaval in the 1930s, as well as in the ‘50s and ‘60s. We mythologize those careers most disrupted and changed by transformation, from fishing to coal mining, journalism to watchmaking. Will we call the thinkers, doers, and builders in the knowledge economy artisanal if they eschew AI in their work?

This is delicate. These tools have a unique ability to mimic our voice and our identity in a way that no longer belongs to the realm of science fiction. Self-actualization and belonging are key pillars of the work cultures we strive to create every day. The onslaught of new patterns, workflows, and efficiencies, leading to perceived or real obsolescence, can profoundly impact how individuals perceive themselves and one another. The brilliance of AI can upend the brilliance that defines us, and that’s rarely happened to truly intellectual pursuits, if ever.

Go fast, go slow

In this ever-evolving industry, we've birthed self-evolving technology, where improvement comes with every use and experiment. To steer through this dynamic landscape, leaders, organizations, and knowledge workers must adopt a dual approach.

On one hand, speed is important. Experiment, adopt, and adapt. Learn. Craft guidelines to protect people and data and adjust them as newer tools emerge. Embrace the innovation that accompanies rapid evolution and the unprecedented accessibility to create with fewer barriers.

On the other hand, take a deliberate pause to contemplate the profound shifts in human behaviour and the individual identities of knowledge workers. Privacy, security, ownership, identity, misinformation, and accuracy must serve as essential anchors. Thoughtfulness and compassion in the face of change are unique values that we need to ballast against the hurricane of AI advancement.

Embracing AI doesn't require unwavering technical optimism or a resolute commitment to boundless progress. It also shouldn’t push us to adopting the Luddite mindset. Instead, it invites us to recognize the profound impact AI has on the modern knowledge economy. The most successful adopters in this sector understand that the future of work is not solely a product of our operational efficiency; it equally, if not more so, hinges on our ability to comprehend and humanely adapt to change.