Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Work

Blake Irving
6 min readJul 15, 2015

By Blake Irving, CEO, GoDaddy — Artificial Intelligence has been the topic de jour lately with every corner of intellectual thought sounding in on the perils, and the potential rewards, of synthesizing a machine intelligence that could successfully perform any intellectual task that a human can. Elon Musk, Bill Gates and even Stephen Hawking have all suggested that an AI with this sort of general intelligence (also known as Strong AI or Full AI) could bring about an apocalypse that sees an end to human civilization, or even an end to the human race.

There’s no doubt that Strong AI is the subject of intense research by DARPA, MIT, Berkeley, IBM, Google and many others. But it’s hard not to notice that despite all the anxiety, Strong AI today lives only in the imagination of science fiction writers and in the hopes and dreams of research scientist. At the prestigious “Future of AI” conference in San Juan this January, the estimates for when an AI might emerge vacillated wildly from 5 years to a hundred years in our future — its variables are that unknown.

While a singularity triggering AI is tantalizing to speculate about, like day dreaming with a lottery ticket in your pocket, it’s still all hypothetical. So when I was asked to join a panel discussion about “when AI will change our lives” at this year’s Fortune Brainstorm Tech, my first thought was, “who knows, it may not happen in our lifetimes.” That thought was followed quickly by a second thought: “when it happens it will probably just kill us all, so let’s talk about something more practical.”

But as I thought more deeply on what I could contribute to the conversation, my thoughts turned to the other type of AI — the “Applied AI” that we see in machine learning and predictive analytics. Also called Narrow AI or Weak AI, Applied AI (AAI) is already here today and already changing people’s lives — for better and for worse.

In contrast to Strong AI, AAI does not attempt to perform the full range of human cognitive abilities. It’s highly specialized like Deep Blue, the first computer chess-playing system to beat a reigning world chess champion in 1997 or IBM’s question answering system, Watson, that crushed the two greatest Jeopardy champions, Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings in 2011. Apple’s SIRI and Microsoft’s Cortona are also popular examples of AAI, but Yahoo’s Hadoop/Casandra editorial system, eBay’s “Seller Insights” system and the platform we’re building at GoDaddy to serve insights to our customers all qualify under the AAI moniker.

GoDaddy’s vision is to radically shift the global economy toward small business by empowering people to easily start, confidently grow and successfully run their own ventures. We didn’t come to that vision by chance, but rather by identifying the intersection of technological and global economic opportunities — and Applied AI is at the heart of both.

Economically, we see a future where enterprise business becomes increasingly efficient by automating much of their workforce using AAI. Automation will come both from advanced robotics in manufacturing and from computerization of complex analytical tasks. While this will be a boon for those companies’ bottom lines, it will likely be disastrous for existing or prospective employees if other avenues for employment don’t manifest. The scale is massive: almost half of all jobs in the Western world (47%) could be automated by computers within the next two decades according to The Economist and researchers from the University of Oxford’s Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology. The tsunami of social change that will follow presents an incredible opportunity for those, like GoDaddy, who will help people transition from automatable roles into work that is non-susceptible to computerization. That work will leverage social intelligence, creativity, and advanced skills of perception and manipulation. There’s nothing that fits the bill for those categories better than small business. That is GoDaddy’s focus.

The chart above, reproduced from data by Peter Orr of 80,000 Hours, shows sample probabilities of job types that will be replaced by automation over the next twenty years. Non-creative jobs that don’t require a high level of social intelligence or complex manipulation (like a surgeon) will be highly susceptible to computerizaion.

Technologically, the same Applied Artificial Intelligence that’s leading to the computerization of enterprise workforces is also the solution to making non-automatable work more accessible to a significantly greater number of people.

Specifically, running a small business today is a truly daunting prospect despite its other rewards. Being great at the object of the business (baker, wedding planner, etc.) isn’t enough. A small business owner has to wear many hats and the weight of those decisions is enough to paralyze most people from pursuing their independent business dreams. On any given day, business owners are simultaneously the CEO, CFO, CMO, CTO, CIO and many more. By collecting and analyzing trillions of “business signals” from millions of customers, We’re is beginning to help entrepreneurs wear fewer hats by using AAI to deliver hyper-personalized business insights that take the time and weight out of previously cripplingly daunting decisions. GoDaddy is not the only one doing this, though I do believe we’re at the tip of the spear.

The shift toward small business needn’t be merely about maintaining employment levels; it can be a paradigm shift away from consumerism and toward a producer-based economy. An economy of individuals, that is, who get their core satisfaction from producing goods and services themselves vs. finding satisfaction in consumption alone because their jobs have left them profoundly wanting.

I posit that today most people choose their career at the conjunction of “what they are good at” and “what pays the most,” with little consideration for doing what they love. But the same Applied AI that’s driving job-killing automation can simultaneously help individuals follow their entrepreneurial dreams. Dreams that are tied to a third circle in the Venn diagram: “doing what they love.”

The ability for vastly more people to do work they love without having to be experts in every aspect of business could fuel a revolution toward a producer-based economy. An economy made up of millions of individuals who are doing what they love is a welcomed change that AI is helping make real. In that sense, I say bring on the AI.

Afterword — This morning we had our panel discussion on “when AI will change our lives,” at Fortune Brainstorm Tech at the Aspen Institute in Colorado. The hour was moderated by Fortune editor Stacey Higginbotham and with me on the panel was Guru Banavar, Vice President, Cognitive Computing, IBM Research; Oren Jacob, CEO, ToyTalk; Amit Mital, CTO, Symantec; Shivon Zilis, Partner, Bloomberg Beta and Adam Nash, CEO, Wealthfront.

It was a fascinating talk that I hope everyone will be able to see online eventually. Not surprisingly, the hour served to strengthen my view that the only AI worth talking about today (unless you’re deep in the trenches of Google’s X Lab or the like) is Applied AI. When we talked about Strong AI, opinions on what our future might look like and when that future might happen oscillated to extremes. It was only when we brought the conversation to AAI that we could agree on the clear benefits and harms happening from the advance of this technology.

Title Photo: Adobe

Blake Irving

CEO, @GoDaddy. Fmr Chief Product Officer at @Yahoo, Fmr Head of Global Cloud Platforms (MSN, Live, Hotmail) at @Microsoft. Passionate about life and tech!