It appears far-fetched that half of tomorrow’s workforce will be unemployed, as the Oxford study implies, but AI is indeed creating a challenge that exceeds the scale of historical shifts out of agriculture and manufacturing. We are on the cusp of a new automation age in which machines not only do things that we thought only humans could do but also can increasingly do them at a superhuman level of performance including the ones requiring cognitive capabilities. Old ideas that computers can’t do certain human things – be creative, sense emotions, empathize – are being tossed out one by one. AI has the capability to understand language, recognize patterns, solve problems, diagnose diseases, express emotions, drive vehicles, handle medications, address lawsuits, and write articles like this one. Consequently, an increasing number of activities will have the potential to be performed by machines rather than by humans.
How real is the threat?
When I was doing my final year project in 1989 at IIT Roorkee, India in a subfield of AI known as neural networks – it was “out of this world.” The grand challenges of the field were a limited memory, slow processing, and lack of training testbeds. Starting around 2010, the field of AI has been re-energized by fast hardware Graphics Processor Units (GPUs), ASICs, ML Accelerators and infinitely large training testbeds (BIG data such as images, IOT, social networks, etc.). This combination has resulted in AI to advance at a breakneck pace.
Who will be impacted?
The effects of automation — initially assumed to be in low-wage occupations — are seeping into high-wage occupations. Automation due to AI, ML and Robotics will touch every job in every sector and in every country. The disruption by AI isn’t quarantined. The impact is across all industries – Manufacturing, retail, logistics, sales, restaurants, e-commerce, marketing, legal, financial, medical, network engineering, program management and even software development. They are becoming a part of everyday life in fields from journalism to law to medicine. In fact, a significant proportion of highly paid work, not just low-wage work, can be automated. IBM’s Watson made headlines in 2016 by diagnosing in a 60-year-old woman a rare form of leukemia that had eluded her doctors for months. The world’s first ROBOT lawyer has already helped defeat 375,000 parking tickets in a span of two years.
What are analysts saying?
Automation will bring big shifts to the world of work, as AI and robotics will displace millions of jobs.
One of the key findings in December 2017 “Workforce transitions in a time of automation” report from global management consulting firm McKinsey is that 60 percent of occupations have at least 30 percent of constituent work activities that could be automated. The report expects 400 million workers to be displaced under midpoint automation scenario in the next 12 years.
A recent report from Forrester predicts that by 2021, intelligent agents and related robots will have eliminated a net 6% of jobs. That’s a huge number: approximately 9 million jobsin the United States.
The World Economic Forum projects that by 2020 the number of administrative roles will shrink by almost 4.8 million in developed and developing countries across the world. The WEF figures also tally with the UBS forecast that routine manual work will also be hit hard by automation, with the body predicting 1.6 million jobs will be lost in manufacturing industries.
When it comes to sales, we’ve already seen AI replace basic jobs in retail and fast food. But by 2020, a million B2B salespeople will lose their jobs, according to Forrester.
But, haven’t we seen this before?
Well, the concerns about the job losses or job displacements due to impact of automation are raised time and again and proven unfounded. The concerns about automation were first raised more than two centuries ago when ‘machines had first arrived.’ Luddites, the textiles workers, protested automation in 1811 by attacking and burning factories. They feared that the ‘unskilled machine operators’ were robbing them of their livelihood. However, AI is different.
- AI technology aims to replace us, not simply make a specific industry more efficient. Advanced neural networks learn, adapt, and respond to situations.
- The technological disruption of one industry in the past didn’t necessarily mean the disruption of another – AI impacts every industry.
- The pace of change is completely unprecedented. The computerization of industry took nearly half a century, but the shift from personal computing to billions of smartphones has taken just a couple of decades. And, wearables and Alexa are not even a decade old. For example, “the steam engine was a remarkable breakthrough and really set off the industrial revolution, but it doubled in power and efficiency approximately once every 70 years and quadrupled after 140 years,” said MIT economist Erik Brynjolfsson.
When will the job losses begin?
The AI influenced job losses have already begun. Automation is coming after jobs, from fast food workers to accountants.
- Foxconn — the largest contract manufacturer of iPhones — laid off 60,000 workers, replacing them with industrial robots.
- In financial markets, global risk and asset management firm BlackRock laid off around 40 employees earlier last year, including portfolio managers and stock managers.
- DEUTSCHE BANK CEO suggests that can eliminate half of 97,000 JOBS with AI implementation
So, what to do?
As machines start to take over routine manual and routine cognitive tasks, it is inevitable that AI, ML, and robotics will have a stronger presence in the workplace. Perhaps AI will create new classes of work even as it destroys existing ones. By eliminating the boring and repetitive, AI and automation will possibly free us to pursue careers that give us purpose over paychecks – a greater sense of meaning and well-being. Whatever the outcome will be, the skills needed in the future will be very different from those that masses have today.
Millions of people worldwide will need to upgrade skills.
To me, even the “Teaching your kids to code” initiative appears to be an effort misplaced in time. We have to reinvent education and re-skilling, and people are going to have to take it upon themselves to more aggressively learn these skills.
In my follow-up article next week, I will go over the skills and training that will be required – for individuals and organizations – to cope up with the pace of automation and adapt to the changes in occupations brought by AI.
Dream big, have fun and lets be ready for the era of AI.