According to Gartner's 2017 hype cycle for emerging technologies, artificial intelligence (AI) will automate 1.8 million people out of work by 2020. While the job losses generate the most interest and headlines, the losses only tell part of the story. Dig a little bit deeper into the hype cycle and you'll see Gartner also predicts AI will create 2.3 million jobs by 2020, driving a net gain of 500,000 new jobs.
The question is no longer whether AI will fundamentally change the workplace. The true question is how companies can successfully use AI in ways that enables, not replaces, the human workforce, helping to make humans faster, more efficient and more productive.
Automation Requires Creating New Skillsets
Andy Peart is chief strategy and marketing officer at Barcelona, Spain-based Artificial Solutions, a global specialist in natural language interaction.
Peart believes that while AI could threaten unskilled jobs through automation, it will also potentially create different kinds of jobs that require new skillsets that will be developed though training.
"Computerized automation does potentially put low-skilled workers whose jobs could be easily automated at risk. But conversely, this may be a short-term effect while the labor market readjusts," he said. "Warnings of technology being the harbinger of death for the job market are nothing new. Automation makes it cheaper to produce fabric, which in turn led to more customers, which drove demand for more product. The job might have changed, but during the industrial revolution, there was no shortage of work for semi-skilled labor."
Peart cites the example of chatbots. Rather than cutting the number of people working, chatbots are about "augmenting the people you already have," he said, automating the mundane and increasingly the complex but repetitive processes. This will free people up to do more of the high-value, relationship building services while deploying AI/chatbots in areas where they excel.
AI: Equally Disrupting and Enabling
Hanover, Md.-based Allegis Group is a talent solutions provider with over 500 locations across the globe and $11 billion in annual revenue. Rachel Russell is executive director of corporate strategy for the company.
Russell shared the results of a global survey Allegis conducted in July of more than 300 HR professionals at senior-manager level and above. Survey respondents reported having mixed feelings about AI and its impact on the future of work.
Twenty-one percent viewed AI as something to be excited about. Seventeen percent considered it both disrupting and enabling, and a lower number, 9 percent, believed AI will displace most jobs in 10 years.
"This mixed view of AI is not surprising because the technology does more than automate tasks; it changes the nature of the work we do. The person whose role no longer includes a certain repetitive task automated by AI may not necessarily lose their job. Rather, they may now have new responsibilities that more broadly focus on human capabilities that AI cannot deliver," Russell said.
She added that while some jobs will certainly be lost as AI takes on skills formerly attributed to humans, new jobs will also emerge. For example, a number of positions are already developing around AI, such as AI trainers, individuals to support data science and capabilities related to modeling, computational intelligence, machine learning, mathematics, psychology, linguistics and neuroscience.
"In any case, as AI takes on more of the work we do, continuous learning and a willingness to develop new skills will likely be a requirement for nearly every worker to maintain their job. This fact has always been true for workers in many fields, but now it's more important than ever," Russell said.
Changing Scope of Jobs
Oliver Schabenberger, CTO and COO of Cary, NC-based SAS agrees. He noted 55 percent of respondents to a survey carried out by SAS believe the biggest challenge related to AI is the changing scope of human jobs in light of AI's automation and autonomy. The potential effect of AI on jobs includes job losses, but also the development of new jobs requiring new AI-related skills.
Current AI systems are trained to perform a human task well, but they are trained to do one task and one task alone, he said. The system that plays chess cannot play solitaire or poker, and it will not acquire skills to do so. The software that drives an autonomous vehicle cannot operate the lights in your home.
"This does not mean that this form of AI is not powerful. It has the potential to transform many industries - maybe every industry," Schabenberger said. "But we should not get ahead of ourselves in terms of what can be accomplished. Systems that learn in a supervised, top-down fashion based on training data cannot grow beyond the contents of the data; they cannot create or innovate or reason."
Not an All or Nothing Scenario
For David Lavenda, co-founder and vice president of marketing and product strategy at Boston-based harmon.ie, AI will not be able to replace human judgment. AI is just the most recent manifestation of ongoing workplace evolution, he said. Since the industrial revolution many significant innovations have been associated with a transition period of temporary job loss, followed by recovery, then business transformation - and AI will likely follow suit.
"Companies that make and use workforce-management software acknowledge these concerns but say machines are no substitute for human judgment and ability to manage interpersonal relations. Instead, they say their software speeds up administrative work and uses data to help human managers improve decisions they previously made only by drawing upon gut instinct and experience," Lavenda said.
Moving forward he suggests that enterprise leaders and workers, instead of looking at AI as a robot that will steal jobs, must start looking at it as intelligence augmentation (IA). In essence, the jobs that remain will be improved by IA making us smarter. "The point isn't that it's all or nothing, AI replacing people versus super smart programmers. There will be many jobs where ordinary people can be augmented by IA and that will help make them more marketable and competitive in the new economy," he said.
An AI Skills Shortage
AI, then, may result in certain jobs being lost to automation, but it will create other posts to be filled. In fact, according to Mohit Josh, head of banking, financial services and insurance, healthcare and life sciences at Bengaluru, India-based Infosys, there aren't enough qualified workers available to fill all of the AI-related roles.
"Currently there is a widespread shortage of talent that possess the knowledge and capabilities to properly build, fuel and maintain these technologies within their organizations. The lack of well-trained professionals who can build and direct a company's AI and digital transformation journeys noticeably hinders progress and continues to be a major hurdle for businesses," he said.
To mitigate this, businesses should look inward and enforce on-the-job training and reskilling. With the proper staff powering AI, employees are able to focus on other critical activities and boost productivity.
AI Can't Set Objectives
The last word goes to AJ Abdallat, CEO of Glendale, Calif.-based Beyond Limits which was created to commercialize cutting edge technology developed by Caltech/Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He pointed out that as good as AI systems are, they're not going to set objectives.
"They can move toward them, and think outside the box. But being able to deal with the nuances of problems is still something that humans obviously excel at. So finding the things that are worth teaching to the AI, to learn and to figure out, that'll still always be a job in the hands of humans," he said. "That's also when it gets kind of cyclical. I'm going to learn something, the machine's going to discover a new pattern, we'll optimize an approach that I didn't think could be optimized to such a degree. That's going to give me new questions, which makes me give it new training data, and the process continues like that."
AI may cut the mundane out of many jobs, but in order for it to work effectively it will need more people in new roles. Training, it seems, is the way to avoid AI-induced unemployment.