The Robots Are Coming, but Are They Coming to Steal Our Jobs?

The technology-dominated world we live in is filled with promises of enhanced productivity and job satisfaction, but does that mean human jobs are safe?

When the industrial revolution happened, a tidal wave of machines replaced countless jobs almost overnight. Today we are faced with similar odds.

Advanced automation technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) possess the capability to replace countless knowledge workers' roles. As recently as 2017, McKinsey Global Institute produced a report that predicted that by 2030, as many as 800 million jobs could be lost to intelligent automation. And while employees are concerned, employers are excited about the potential benefits of automation and intelligent digital workers (defined as a category of software robots which are trained to perform specific tasks or processes in partnership with their human colleagues). However, that is not the complete story, as the same McKinsey report also highlights, “history shows that technology has created large employment and sector shifts, but also creates new jobs”.

But does that mean robots will steal our jobs? Maybe, maybe not. As research shows, the story is more complicated than can be afforded by a simple yes or no answer.

Why Are Automation and Artificial Intelligence Disrupting the World of Work?

There is a range of push-and-pull reasons behind businesses' attempts to use automation and artificial intelligence to disrupt the world of work.

Besides businesses’ excitement about the transformative effects of AI and digital technologies, digital workers offer tremendous cost advantages. For example, digital workers don’t require holidays, bathroom breaks or remuneration. They don’t require uniforms or pension fund contributions, nor can they join a union and go on strike, get hurt, or require disciplinary action.

In addition, AI-powered chatbots enable businesses to offer customer service 24/7 while simultaneously improving employee and customer experience. Intelligent automation tooling and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) platforms can release employees from necessary but low-value tasks. Automation frees those employees to complete higher-value tasks that generate more income for a business with no increase in labour cost.

There are also drivers that push businesses toward digital technologies. For example, employee dissatisfaction, customer complaints, missed deadlines, compliance check failure or fines, high cost to value, extended process timescales, inefficiency, or a lack of company-wide insights are all indicators that a market, business, process, or job role is ripe for digital disruption. And rather than throw more workers at these problems, businesses can use intelligent automation and AI technologies to solve them instead. This all sounds wonderful but are businesses using these available technologies to do so?

What Are the Potential Benefits of Automation and AI-Infused Digital Workers?

In today’s fast-paced digital world, businesses, employees, and customers won’t tolerate inefficient processes or poor service or paying for something that doesn't uniquely benefit them. Employees and customers want instant answers, and automation, AI and advanced digital assistants are used to deliver business results.

For example, leading food manufacturers, such as the French food manufacturer Danone Group, now use machine learning to improve their demand forecast accuracy. This has led to a 20% decrease in forecasting errors: a 30% decrease in lost sales, and a 50% reduction in demand planners’ workload.

Farmers Insurance now uses unmanned aerial systems to assess damage to residential rooftops after significant weather events. Deploying drones and AI instead of claims adjusters has improved response time and safety.

OTP bank deployed DRUID’s conversational AI platform to provide customers with 24/7 access to banking products and automate key customer support processes. A conversational AI assistant onboards customers 10x faster with full KYC capabilities, collects customer feedback, and enables 24/7 customer support automation through an omnichannel conversational experience. Many times customers rarely even realise they’re talking to a bot due to the highly personalised interactions that virtual AI assistants now deliver.

Banking Case Study

Chinese company Alibaba is the world's largest e-commerce platform and sells more than Amazon and eBay combined. AI is integral to Alibaba’s daily operations and is used to predict what customers might want to buy. With natural language processing, the company automatically generates product descriptions for the Alibaba site.

As wonderful as this may sound, businesses are still struggling to leverage technology to do human jobs instead. Why?

The Largest Impediments to Adopting AI Technologies

People rightly get excited about the prospect of AI, ChatGPT, autonomous vehicles, trains, and aircraft and how that technology can and is disrupting every sphere of the global transport and logistics industry. Yet there are many hurdles to be overcome before AI and automation can be expanded at pace.

For example, there are a whole host of impediments to overcome to implement a successful automation program, including a technical feasibility assessment, the cost of developing and deploying automation solutions for specific use cases in the workplace, labour-market dynamics (including location, quality, quantity, and cost of labour), the benefits of automation beyond labour substitution, and regulatory and social acceptance. Each impacts the likelihood or pace at which automation might affect roles.

Lack of Necessary AI Knowledge or Skills

In addition, many businesses do not have the necessary knowledge or skills to implement and utilize AI technology to its fullest extent effectively. The cost of acquiring and implementing AI technology can be high and is often not feasible for some small or medium-sized businesses. AI requires a large amount of data to train models, and businesses may not have the necessary funding, data, or infrastructure to support AI implementation.

AI Ethical Concerns

Some businesses may be hesitant to implement AI due to ethical concerns of job displacement or bias in decision-making. Often businesses are simply resistant to change and may not be willing to adapt their processes and systems to incorporate AI. Besides, integrating AI with existing legacy systems and processes can be challenging and may require significant changes to the existing infrastructure.

Compliance Requirements

Some industries may be regulated and have compliance requirements, which can make it difficult to implement AI without violating any regulations. And governments often intervene to reduce the prospect of mass redundancies in their populations because of new technologies such as AI and automation. For example, the Indian and South African governments actively block the automation of their taxi industry to prevent disruption to local drivers and the local economy.

AI Lack of Emotional Intelligence

And quite often, a person is far better at completing a task than AI or automation will ever be. For example, no machine should ever be used to present a cancer diagnosis to a healthcare patient, nor can a machine ever hope to understand human empathy to the depth a person can. Leadership requires a person to understand emotional intelligence. Excellent customer services require as much understanding of non-verbal communication as verbal communication. Computers don’t cry or laugh, but teams of people do. Creative thoughts, self-awareness, caring, and intuition are innate human emotions that can never be replicated in a machine.

So, Are the Existing Impediments to AI Protecting Our Jobs?

The real answer is more complex than a simple yes or no. All the technology barriers to implementing digital transformation can be overcome. For example, businesses can invest in building internal expertise by hiring AI professionals or by providing training and education for their existing employees. Alternatively, they can partner with AI experts or contractors who can provide the necessary knowledge and resources to implement AI effectively.

Businesses with limited funds can start small by piloting AI in a specific area or process before scaling up. And they can address ethical concerns by developing and implementing policies and procedures to ensure that AI is used responsibly and ethically. They can also communicate the benefits of AI to both employees and stakeholders, therefore minimizing any resistance to change whilst incrementally integrating AI into existing systems and processes to minimize disruptions and costs. Businesses, large or small, can also stay up to date with regulations or compliance requirements by working with their legal and compliance teams to ensure that their AI implementation does not violate any regulations.

Even the most reluctant governments eventually recognize that they operate in a global digital economy. So ultimately, it is in their citizen’s best interests to offer tax and funded educational opportunities to incentivize indigenous business and their citizens to adopt digital technologies.

But while that sounds simple, not every business is willing to change or able to invest in technology. Nor is every business leadership team capable of creating an environment and pace of business needed to survive in 2023 and beyond. Businesses are complex ecosystems of people, politics, emotions, and capabilities. They operate in diverse, dynamic, interconnected and less predictable markets than ever before, and therefore, not every business is capable of change.

How Can Job-Related Challenges Be Resolved?

Many people fear that AI will "steal their job", and that is not without reason. As automation, AI and digital workers play an increasing role in people’s everyday lives, their potential impact has become the subject of much research and debate. For example, the McKinsey Global Institute report postulated that advances in AI and robotics will have a far-reaching impact on the everyday lives of workers. They quoted, “in about 60% of occupations, at least one-third of the constituent activities could be automated, implying substantial workplace transformations and changes for all workers.” For example, in the United States alone, between 39 million and 73 million jobs stand to be automated — making up around a third of the total workforce.

AI’s potential impact is comparable to the shift out of agriculture and manufacturing-dominated industrial societies of the past toward a very different future. For example, one-third of China’s workforce moved out of agriculture between 1990 and 2015. Nevertheless, time has proven that just as technology created large employment shifts, it has also led to new, more digitized, more productive, and thus more satisfying jobs.

It is understandable that some are concerned, but far from being scared about AI, we should be excited about the possibilities and opportunities it brings. AI, automation, and intelligent virtual assistants are actually better at augmenting the role of current employees rather than replacing them. Ensuring that people understand this and that they know about the ways in which AI can make their jobs easier is a really important step in generating the excitement around AI we want and need to see.

So it is up to governments, businesses, and the advocates of AI to educate people and listen to their worries rather than dismissing them while demonstrating AI’s transformative potential. Professionals will need to adapt to a scenario with new technologies, robots, and artificial intelligence taking over a significant portion of their roles.

Some people may be able to adapt through better education. Others will dedicate their time and energy to activities that require emotional and social skills, creativity, a high level of cognitive ability, and skills that are difficult for robots to replicate. Others will need to retrain and change jobs altogether.

Increasingly, so-called knowledge workers will experience the impact of automation, artificial intelligence, and digital workers on their roles. The recent release of Open AI’s GPT3 model highlights how precarious so-called "knowledge work" is when a robot can competently create a social media content strategy, computer code or write a book in a matter of minutes.

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The technology-dominated world we live in is filled with promise. AI, automation, and digital workers can deliver improvements across the board, but that does not, as the McKinsey Global Institute suggests, mean that workers won’t be displaced by automation. Hence, many people are right to have a slight concern about digital technologies.

And while concerns about whether there will be enough jobs for workers in the future are genuine, given the potential of digital technologies, history suggests that such fears may be unfounded. Over time, as we have witnessed with prior industrial revolutions, labour markets adjust to changes in demand. And that has led McKinsey also to highlight that "workers displaced by automation are easily identified, …new jobs…created indirectly from technology are less visible…across different sectors and geographies. "

It often takes a crisis or an external point of view to recognize that change must happen. Many businesses, governments and workers are wedded to how they’ve always done things. Yet, as global competition increases and the current global economy dissipates into recession, a head-in-the-sand or "we have always done it this way’" approach might not be the best way to operate. It’s therefore important that governments, employees, and employers are provided with the incentives, knowledge, and skills they need to leverage the incredible opportunity that digital technologies bring.

The prospects of a bright and rich augmented digital-enabled future are there for us to enjoy. But technology alone cannot solve every business problem, nor can people. We need to make sure the best of humans and the best of technology are brought together for businesses and their workers to prosper.

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