It’s a polarizing topic that we’re hearing about more and more: the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on employment. Are the cynics right? Does it spell the demise of the human workforce, or will jobs simply evolve?
Let’s begin by breaking down what Artificial Intelligence actually is. AI refers to apparently intelligent behaviour exhibited by machines, often perceiving their environment and acting to maximize their chance of success towards a pre-defined goal. This is often seen as a machine mimicking human cognitive functions, such as ‘learning’ and ‘problem solving’. AI utilizes a combination of computer programming, machine learning and big data – all of which are areas we’re seeing a significant amount of growth in as companies seek to integrate these functions and prepare for the future.
Computer programming builds the operational framework making the machine capable of carrying out a series of calculations or actions automatically.
Machine Learning enables the machine to acquire new skills or knowledge without being explicitly programmed.
Lastly, Big Data provides the ‘raw material’ and the opportunity for the machine to practice and learn, resulting in it ultimately performing its task more efficiently.
The Impact of AI
While you might be hearing about it a lot more lately, AI is not a new concept. Founded as an academic discipline in 1956 by Computer Scientist, John McCarthy, the traditional approach was not so much about independent machine learning, but more around implementing specific rules for logical reasoning that a machine could be programmed to follow. Modern AI adopts machine learning, in which a machine performs specific tasks as if it were a child, improving its performance through learning, inferring patterns and hypothesis checking.
Before we look at possible effects of AI in the future, we should touch on how machines have already affected our workforce. Let’s look at some major industries that are already being affected:
Manufacturing: One of the first industries to replace humans with artificial intelligence, using robots to assemble and package products. Many of these still need human support or at least supervision, but as technology rapidly develops, we will see less and less human support, and more complex products being built.
Healthcare: Artificial intelligence is already being utilized by medical and pharmaceutical companies. Robotics is used in the testing and diagnosis of disease, with a higher accuracy of diagnosis than human doctors. Anesthesia delivery is even being automated to improve costs as well as accuracy.
Customer Service: AI is more efficient than ever in customer service, thanks to advancements in personalization and human interaction. Friendly robots are being used that mimic human speech, to provide a cost-effective solution for companies and a quick and easy service for customers.
Finance: In an industry where there is a rapidly increasing amount of data, artificial intelligence is being used to keep up with demand. AI can use predictive systems and market data to manage finances and forecast stock trends, and robots can use algorithms to provide advice on investments, spending and saving.
With technology rapidly advancing, there is no doubt that over the coming decades we are going to experience a huge amount of change, and that the world and workforce we know is going to fundamentally change. The question is, will AI take over the workforce leaving no jobs for humans, or will our jobs instead evolve?
Threats & Response
Let’s look first at the theory that there may be significantly less jobs available for humans in the not so distant future. Predictions vary greatly with regards to the percentage of today’s workforce that will be replaced by AI. Some predict that as much as 47% of the workforce will be replaced by AI and robots, across many different industries, blue and white collar alike. Manufacturing, construction, transport, medical, banking; the list of industries that may be impacted goes on.
However, this also raises questions around social challenges. What happens when a huge chunk of the workforce is automated, and a large percentage of the population is unable to work? One grim possibility is that millions on millions are left without income, we see the next depression and the collapse of society as we know it. However, no income brings no demand along with it, in which case the AI driven production of services and products comes to a halt.
One solution is the Universal Basic Income (UBI), where all citizens and residents of a country receive an unconditional sum of money, regardless of if they are in employment or not (those able to work receive their wages on top of their UBI). Funding for this UBI would be obtained via an ‘AI Tax’ on companies utilizing artificial intelligence, enabling there to be a balance of supply and demand. Those able to work are rewarded in wages without having their UBI affected, and those unable to work are able to survive, and possibly contribute to society in other ways, perhaps in an artisan manner, putting efforts into music, fine arts, etc. The result? Society is no longer being simply maintained, but instead is being enriched in a fundamentally different way. While it might seem extreme from where we are currently sitting, a number of UBI pilot programmes continue to take place around the world, including in countries like Canada and the Netherlands.
On the other side of the fence, we have the theory that the total number of jobs available for humans will not decrease but will evolve and adapt instead. History does tend to support this idea. In the 19th century, the amount of course cloth that could be produced by a weaver increased by a factor of 50, with the amount of human labour required per yard decreasing by 98%. However, despite this, jobs were not decimated. Cloth become cheaper, demand rose, and the total number of jobs increased by a factor of four!
As another example, the introduction of ATMs (Automated Teller Machines) was expected to decrease the demand for bank clerks, and it did; by almost half per bank branch. However, with the decrease in costs, banks were able to open more branches, and with that the number of urban bank branches increasing by over 40%. The overall result was an increase in the total number of roles. So the question is, is this time different? Will the roles for humans not decrease, but instead evolve and adapt with changes in technology?
It is impossible to know for sure how the world will look in a few decades time. One thing is clear; the world will be a very different place, and it will be up to us as a society to make it something great. And of course, if you’re looking to make an impact in the AI space, feel free to drop me a line.