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The Stephen Hawking Warning About Artificial Intelligence That Every Businessperson Should Read

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When physicist Stephen Hawking died, he left behind some amazing ideas and research. He developed important work on our observable universe. And he gave us some observations of his own.

One of those observations is getting some attention.

It's not in any academic journal, but rather in a Reddit post.

A couple years before Hawking's death, he answered user questions in a Reddit forum. The questions ranged across many topics, but a few dealt with artificial intelligence.

Hawking has taken some public stands on AI, which prompted the questions. He had previously warned of potential dangers associated with AI. So some Reddit users asked him about his thoughts on AI's risks.

Hawking's answers are illuminating for marketers, salespeople, and businesses.

“The real risk with AI isn’t malice but competence. A superintelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals, and if those goals aren’t aligned with ours, we’re in trouble," he noted.

Here, Hawking is talking about a superintelligent AI system. This type of AI doesn't exist and remains completely theoretical. It's unclear if a superintelligent AI is even possible, let alone dangerous.

But put theory aside for a second.

Because Hawking raises a good point.

The creation and use of artificial intelligence isn't driven by malice. It's driven by the desire for increased competency at certain tasks. And that quest for competency is causing AI-driven changes to business as usual—right now.

You don't need superintelligent AI to transform industries. It's already happening with "run-of-the-mill" AI.

AI is already being deployed to do cognitive tasks previously performed by humans.

For instance, half of accountants are considering or adopting AI "to reduce repetitive tasks as customers expect more of them," reports ComputerWeekly.

Lawyers are encountering something similar. JPMorgan used AI to automate legal work that took human lawyers 300,000+ hours, reports Bloomberg.

Financial services pros aren't immune, either. Royal Bank of Scotland eliminated hundreds of jobs by using AI in place of human wealth advisers.

Accountants. Lawyers. Financial services professionals. Those are pretty lucrative and complex jobs that are being changed by AI.

To Hawking's point, they weren't changed or eliminated because of malice. They changed or disappeared because of a desire for more competency. Customers wanted more. Employers wanted more.

In the case of Royal Bank of Scotland, "the demand for face-to-face investment advice is changing," the bank told ComputerWeekly. "Our customers increasingly want to bank with us using digital technology."

This is happening now in different industries. And it's important for marketers to pay attention to how it happens. Because it's impacting our industry, too.

AI is being used to automate repetitive tasks that marketers do everyday, like create and promote content or build marketing plans. And it’s being used to augment how marketers build and execute campaigns.

But it’s unclear how AI will impact employment in the industry as it accelerates.

Which is why Hawking’s comments merit attention.

We need to start taking seriously the prospect of AI-driven disruption and transformation in marketing.

For some roles, we suspect AI will unlock exciting and lucrative new opportunities to drive performance.

For others, we think it might automate away specific job functions. In this scenario, it could free up marketing talent to pursue higher value tasks. Or, it might make certain roles obsolete or less valuable.

It’s too early to tell just yet how this all plays out. But that’s why listening to long-term thinkers like Hawking is so important. We’ve got to start anticipating change. Because it seems like science fiction today. But tomorrow (or some day years from now) it may be science fact.

The incentives for companies and people to produce better and better AI are clear, which makes it likely we’ll see the technology used more and more. And it may be used out of a desire for competency, for progress, and for efficiency. But that may have unintended consequences. As Hawking put it:

“You’re probably not an evil ant-hater who steps on ants out of malice, but if you’re in charge of a hydroelectric green energy project and there’s an anthill in the region to be flooded, too bad for the ants. Let’s not place humanity in the position of those ants.”

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