I’m 57 years old and, therefore, too young to remember a time when calculators were new to the workforce. My parents, however, were born in the 1930s and so came of age before calculators existed and were well into their adult years before calculators started to appear in offices and then classrooms.
I remember, however, when programmable calculators became somewhat affordable for many, and I was an early adopter. For a couple of years, most of my math teachers seemed to be unaware that some and then most of their students had switched to programmable calculators, which mean that we no longer had to memorize complex formulas. They were either already programmed into our calculators, or we could program the formulas in ourselves. Either way, our grades continued to based on exams that tested us more for the ability to memorize the formulas than our ability to apply the quotient to some problem. Those, like me, who weren’t as good at memorizing formulas quickly saw our grades skyrocket as the benefits of those programmable calculators mattered more to us than to the students who had little to no difficulty memorizing the formulas. The programmable calculators, in other words, closed the skill gap related to the ability to memorize the formulas.
To the younger reader, this may all sound quite arcane, but I see tremendous similarities between the introduction of calculators and artificial intelligence (AI) into workplaces and schools. With calculators, the ease and speed at which complex calculations could be performed significantly transformed both the academic and business landscape. While we often consider these tools as equally beneficial to everyone, the advent of calculators was a tremendous advantage to those with less mathematical prowess, narrowing the skills gap between lower and higher-skilled workers. This can be a fitting analogy when considering the future impact of AI on the world of work.
The Great Equalizer: The Case of the Calculator
Before calculators, advanced mathematics was an exclusive domain requiring intensive learning and practice. It was an area where higher-skilled workers naturally excelled. However, the introduction of calculators democratized these skills, empowering lower-skilled workers to perform mathematical operations that would have been otherwise out of their reach.
Calculators effectively lowered the barrier to entry into roles that required number crunching, data analysis, and financial projections. Thus, lower-skilled workers could leverage technology to compete in domains previously dominated by their higher-skilled counterparts. In essence, the calculator served as a great equalizer, fostering a more inclusive working environment.
AI: The Modern-Day Calculator
AI promises a similar and perhaps even more significant revolution in today’s workplaces. Just as calculators expanded the capabilities of workers across the spectrum, AI has the potential to further level the playing field between lower and higher-skilled workers.
For lower-skilled workers, AI can automate repetitive tasks, making them more efficient and productive. Consider data entry, appointment scheduling, or machinery operation. By handling these routine tasks, AI not only eases the work of lower-skilled employees but also provides them with opportunities to engage in more complex, interesting tasks.
AI can also offer personalized training and development, helping these workers upskill at their own pace and in their own style. Through adaptive learning systems, AI can identify individual weaknesses and provide targeted training, offering a personalized path to career advancement.
Narrowing the Skills Gap
In essence, AI, like the calculator, serves as a tool for empowerment. It opens doors to new possibilities and breaks down barriers that were once insurmountable. With AI handling more routine tasks, lower-skilled workers are provided with the opportunity to learn and grow in their roles.
This isn’t to say that AI doesn’t benefit higher-skilled workers — it does. AI can augment their capabilities and help them achieve more. However, AI is more of a complementary tool for higher-skilled workers but a transformative force for lower-skilled workers.
The Road Ahead
Just like the calculator, AI is poised to democratize skills and narrow the gap between lower and higher-skilled workers. As we move towards a future of work increasingly shaped by AI, it is essential to remember the lessons from the calculator: technology can be a great equalizer.
AI presents an unprecedented opportunity to redefine the nature of work, making it more inclusive, flexible, and meaningful. It’s up to us to seize this opportunity and ensure that AI serves as a tool for empowerment for all, not just a select few.