AI and the future of work - think augmenting, not destroying, according to Sanofi and L’Oréal

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan February 5, 2024
Summary:
The CEOs of two major global brands foresee a new world of work in which AI augments human activity and eliminates mundane tasks.

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AI is coming to gobble up all our jobs, right? Not so fast! Away from the scaremongering headlines, AI and automation have the potential to improve our lives, stripping away at the mundanity of the working day and freeing up human beings to do…well, something more interesting instead. 

That was the thesis that emerged most strongly from a panel at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos which set out to explore the impact of such technologies on work, with an emphasis on augmentation rather than devastation.

An important starting point in the discussion was an understanding that, despite the hype cycle triggered by the meteoric appearance of generative AI in our lives, there’s a need to take a long term view here. As Joe Ucuzoglu, Global Chief Executive Officer, Deloitte, put it: 

We generally overstate the impact in a very short horizon and understate the impact over a longer horizon. This is going to have a huge impact. It's not going to be overnight…I think part of the challenge here is that we're taking what we can see and is available today and we're trying to project the impact over a long period of time. The environment is not static. In fact, we're on a sharp, upward, logarithmic curve in terms of how quickly these [Large Language] Models are gaining sophistication. So it's a little dangerous to predict too much based on the state of play today.

That said, Ucuzoglu is a ‘glass half full’ guy when it comes to the impact of AI on the world of work: 

This is going to make work more meaningful. This is going to make people more productive. There's no doubt. This is also going to take some elements that are currently done by people and allow those tasks to be performed by AI. Now in every prior wave of technological innovation, there have been far more new roles for humans created than the old ones that were destroyed. That's still the consensus base case here, that ultimately you see more net new job creation. Now whether it all happens in the same timeline...We certainly don't want a 60 year gap in terms of generations it takes to replace those jobs, given the social consequences.

But there are some who have expressed a concern that this time is different, because the technology is moving so quickly up the curve of human capability that this will not replicate the phenomenon of past waves of innovation. That has a whole host of new consequences associated with it. But for the smart money, the best estimate is that over a foreseeable horizon, this is a net job creator. This makes people's lives better.

Changed nature

At French pharma and healthcare firm Sanofi, around 11,000 use AI on a daily basis, according to CEO Paul Hudson:

The newspaper headlines are about job losses, but the reality is, the nature of work has changed. We all know that. We're recruiting more and more people. It may not be the same people doing the same things, but we try our best to make sure that we can re-train and re-skill. But I think there is this journey to more meaningful work. People don't want to do PowerPoint, they want to be weaponized and amplified.  We don't spend enough time talking about what this will enable that is not possible by human beings. 

Hudson highlighted that on his phone, he has all his company's data, coded and protected, 130 terabytes every day, analyzed in real time. This is, he said, the equivalent of 14 million Excel spreadsheets that would require 60,000 people daily to give him insights. Today he can get Instagram Reels of where to look in the business for opportunity and for risk, real-time, with no human involved in the process at all:

Our people move from doing analytics to working with insights to doing something to have impact. ...We have no objective to reduce the number of people because AI can do that. We have a big objective to increase productivity, and we have an even bigger objective to establish more insights that can lead to more valuable delivery of healthcare for patients. That's so exciting and most of these things can't be done by a human being not even one good at Excel or PowerPoint

Beautiful future

It’s the same story in the retail sector, suggested Nicolas Hieronimus, Chief Executive Officer at global beauty giant L’Oréal:

Short term, [AI is] a job creator. Half of the hirings we've been doing over the last three years has been either related to data or to AI. So right now it's creating jobs. Mid-term, I see my teams, they're all working too much and they're desperately hoping to have some sort of solution that helps them crunch the data, come up with better PowerPoints and not waste hours doing them. There may be some industries or some type of jobs where it's going to be a bit more radical, but I see this as a real way to free time and probably get our employees to have a better work life balance…I think short term or mid term, because we need time to train everybody - we've already trained 6,000 people, but we have 90,000!

But Hieronimus had a commendably pragmatic point to make given the near hysteria about generative AI - there are other pressing matters that need to be dealt with as well! He explained: 

We're right now in a period where people had started working from home with COVID. So we brought our employees back back to the office and they have the possibility to work from home two days a week. It's very, very important today to have people work together again. We're a creative industry.  I know so many employees from other companies than L’Oréal that have been working from home for months and have absolutely no attachment no passion, no creativity. So right now my topic is more, before we get this fantastic benefit from LLMs and from generative AI, to have people continue to work together.  

That said, he’s also optimistic about the potential of generative AI: 

We see the possibilities of gen AI as it relates to creativity, for example, in its capacity to augment our teams. We are a very creative company, we invent products, we create images, and the capacity to use these models to boost our creativity is phenomenal…Even if you work five days a week, today you have very long hours at L’Oréal. As far as I'm concerned, if we can get people to work even 10% less and have more time just to think, to discuss, to spend time at the coffee machine and brainstorm, that will be a fantastic achievement.

My take

It will be a fantastic augmentation.

It will indeed, if executed upon correctly and if the right cultural adjustments can be made appropriately. Deloitte’s Ucuzoglu cited a recent study his firm has done of 2,800 C-Suite executives: 

I would summarize their current feeling about all this is equal parts excited and overwhelmed. They're excited because the use cases are transformative, whether it be in the context of drug discovery, or transforming manufacturing by creating digital twins, much more effective and efficient call centers and you can just go on and on. But there's a lot of hard work to do. There are too much shiny objects right now. There are too many buzzwords. There's a tremendous amount of IT modernization that needs to take place to actually get the data in a state that's usable.

On the other hand, as Sanofi’s Hudson noted: 

The genie’s out of the bottle right?

That being so, it’s important that there’s genuine debate around the impact on the shape of work and what societal implications come with that. 

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