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What about the people?

I’ve been a technologist all my life. I studied electronics in high school, graduated college with a BSEE, spent some years creating manufacturing machines, and have written extensively about computers and IT for decades. I’ve never really had an uneasy feeling about technology; until this week.

I’m at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando, a terrific event that gathers many of the best minds in IT, dedicated to exploring the future of IT and digital technologies for the enterprise.

Much of my emphasis this week is data center and infrastructure and operations (I&O) topics. Many of the sessions that I have attended have focused on planning tomorrow’s infrastructure for the growth of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, coupled with robotics and automation. Thought leaders from across the industry have spoken at length about AI in everything from better delivery of goods and supply chain execution to superior medical diagnosis and legal analyses.

That’s all well and good, but what happens to the people that this powerful new ‘thinking’ technology will displace?

Human displacement by technology is hardly a new worry — it has troubled society since the Industrial Revolution first displaced craftsman with machines of mass production. But it ‘feels’ different this time around. In the past, worker displacement often carried a promise of retraining, allowing the displaced employee to gain new skills and potentially achieve a better job – and hopefully a better standard of living – than they may have had. Yes, there would be challenges for the displaced employee, but there would likely be some place for them – a way to make a living.

But this week, I’ve heard talk of AIs on the horizon that are capable of digesting unimaginable volumes of medical data, analyzing countless test results and sensory devices, and then rendering a diagnosis with more accuracy and confidence than any human doctor. There was talk of digital modeling and simulation capable of analyzing real-time system performance and predicting impending failures before a human could ever spot the problem. There was also talk of emerging user interfaces capable of studying our behaviors and working behind the scenes to solve problems or fulfill needs that we didn’t even know we had. One keynote speaker mentioned a day when a machine might discover the cure for cancer in a terminally ill patient.

I felt an icy shudder somewhere deep inside. This technology – for all its positive promise and potential – makes me feel irrelevant in my own life. It’s one thing for a machine to eliminate a repetitive, menial, unrewarding job. But what happens when tomorrow’s AI poses the potential to displace our best and brightest? What jobs will our best thinkers and most creative people be retrained to do? What contributions will be left for humans to make in the face of platforms that have access to more data than we will ever have the ability to learn?

These technologies are coming, and should start to disrupt our businesses early in the next three to five years. While the ultimate expression of these technologies may still be some years away, now might be a good time to draw a long, deep breath and contemplate — not just the future of technology, but the future of people.