The AI revolution is here. What has been talked about for the last two decades is finally being realised. It’s here, with all its hype, and it is here to stay. Every company wants the proverbial slice of pie and wants to ingrain the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in its products. There has been a massive amount of funding in labs and companies across the world for developing new AI research. With this, fears have arisen about AI taking over the world as well as our jobs. There are statements like “Millions of jobs will be replaced by AI”. Or will they? To answer this question, we have to go back a few decades.
There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.Key Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977.
Somehow, the microcomputer industry has assumed that everyone would love to have a keyboard grafted on as an extension of their fingers. It just is not so.Erik Sandberg-Diment, New York Times columnist, 1985.
Both of these statements have not aged well at all. This is not to throw shade at them, but to show how predicting the impact of any new technology is extremely hard.
Every new technology, especially in the last two and a half decades, has brought about a revolution in the job market. Yes, many jobs were permanently lost. However, each new technological revolution also brought about completely new jobs which were hitherto unknown. For all the jobs lost because of the internet, like media distribution stores, encyclopedia salesman, librarians, phone-book companies, there have emerged new jobs like social media managers, web developers and bloggers. It gave so many people a platform to sell their products and services, as well the ability to reach out to a huge number of people faster. In fact, it also transformed some of the pre-internet jobs and boosted them just because of social media’s easy reach. Similarly, the smartphone revolution killed off the need to use so many devices like a separate radio, mp3 player, point-and-shoot cameras, physical maps, and even wristwatches; smartphones have fast become a behemoth contributor towards the economy, with mobile tech generating $3.3 trillion in revenues in 2014 . Jobs like social media influencer and online tutors on Youtube and various educational websites are available at fingertips thanks to smartphones.
AI development is extremely fast; however, the background frameworks it needs has not grown at the same pace. It also has applications in the real world, and thus, paints a target on its own back for criticism. There is a huge clamour about how it will replace humans in jobs in many journals and articles. While some jobs will be lost due to AI, it will also produce new opportunities. According to the Autonomous Research Report in 2018, 70% of the front office jobs like tellers, customer service representatives, loan interviewers and clerks will be replaced by AI technologies like chatbots, voice assistants and automated authentication; however, according to Accenture, there will be a net gain in jobs among companies using AI, as well as a net gain in revenues. They claim that AI will create new roles like explaining the deployment of AI technologies, which would still be done by humans. The reasoning they give for the latter is that AI will help people with advice at investments and banking, an improvement on the human agents. In the same article from American Banker , the senior VP of First National Bank of Wynne in Arkansas argues that people are replaceable, AI is not. That is, if a person makes mistakes repeatedly, they can be replaced by another human more capable of doing the job; a malfunctioning AI, however, cannot be fired, it needs to be shut down, and replaced with a human, which makes companies wary of using AI. Research by the Royal Bank of Canada states that humane skills like active listening and social perception will help prospective job applicants complement AI technologies, rather than compete with them.
These discussions come from management employees, but that doesn’t mean that we have to agree to them necessarily. They state that there will be more jobs available. However, we also need to look at what kind of jobs AI will create. If we look at job markets as a whole, the trend would be that indeed, new jobs will be created. If we decide to look closely, however, we can see that the kind of jobs AI will take away are the main source of livelihoods for many working-class people. A taxi driver would not be too amused to see an autonomous truck taking away their passengers and wages, especially if they’re struggling to pay their rent each month with a job. I would also respectfully disagree with the aforementioned VP of the Bank; the sentence ‘humans are replaceable’ is not a good look with the current job market prospects. We should be protecting our workforce with the help of technology, not replace them with more technology. We also need to consider that people need to adapt to the new technologies; some might not have the resources to do so. Do they then try to find different jobs, or risk being left behind with the new revolution?
There are discussions in companies like Accenture, that AI will maximise profits for companies, which will lead to maximization of growth and in turn more employees as companies join more global markets. With even more widespread use of AI, it will be necessary to regulate the ethics behind the usage. This will necessitate employing humans to monitor the decisions taken by AI tools. An example of AI being limited to a single purpose job is given in this New York Times article , which quotes an important MIT report , “A finely tuned gripping robot can pluck a glazed doughnut and place it in a box with its shiny glaze undisturbed, but that gripper only works on doughnuts, it can’t pick up a clump of asparagus or a car tyre.” A general-purpose AI is still a few years away. AI is normally designed as a tool to help humans do better at their jobs. In fact, ASAPP, a New York-based developer of AI-powered customer service software trains human call centre representatives with the help of AI to be more productive, rather than replacing them with AI . Combining human jobs with AI seems to be the best way to go forward, delicately achieving a balance between productivity and human ingenuity.
The effects of AI will be seen in almost all industries. Since AI is a tool which can be applied in so many industries, there is a huge push to apply AI in various domains like medical imaging, neuroscience, business analysis to even sport science. The very essence of AI is such that it pervades all kinds of job markets without discrimination. It is going to change the landscapes of many job markets. Whether you are a taxi-driver, or a doctor, or an assembly-line worker, it is going to affect your job. The hardest hit will be people who are in no position to learn the new skills needed to complement AI entering our lives. This is because as of now, AI is great at doing single purpose repetitive tasks efficiently. AI is not a messiah which will take us to a proverbial promised land, nor is it a weapon of mass destruction wiping out the planet, it is somewhere in the middle, and like with every new technology, we need to adapt. In fact, the balance is more towards the negative. Have we thought about the sheer displacement of people with more and more jobs utilizing AI? Is AI, and especially complex deep learning models, even necessary in tasks? We need to ensure that we’re not just falling victims to following trendy buzzwords and trying to incorporate the latest technology in our services. We have lots of experience in dealing with revolutions, we need to find a way to deal with this latest revolution and ensure it becomes close to the messiah. Thankfully, we still are some years away from AI pervading all job markets, so we can make concrete plans to handle smoother takeovers.
To tackle the wave of AI revolution and ensure that we’re not left behind on the kerb while AI takes our jobs away, we need to keep reinventing ourselves. Yuval Harrari, in his article the “Reboot for the AI revolution”, sums it up beautifully. He says, “…humankind had to develop completely new models [to adapt to the Industrial Revolution] — liberal democracies, communist dictatorships and fascist regimes. It took more than a century of terrible wars and revolutions to experiment with these, separate the wheat from the chaff and implement the best solutions.”  He then adds that we need a working model to overcome the challenges introduced by the new technology. These words may prove to be seminal in the coming years as AI starts disseminating in all job markets. We may need to turn the wheel- or reinvent it completely, as we adapt to the new revolution.
This article delved into how AI is affecting the job industries. The next follow-up article, “Riding the Wave of AI Job Revolution”, of the same series will cover how we can improvise and adapt to this challenging situation.