Features

The AI Employment Disruption


We know that there will be the winners and losers in the age of artificial intelligence. The question is how does one best prepare for the unpredictable workplace of tomorrow?

Which jobs will still be good jobs 10 years from now? That’s the million-dollar question, and it comes with a disconcerting answer. Nobody really knows for sure.

As artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics increasingly wrap their tentacles around jobs and professions which have been humans-only territory for generations, differing views on how the employment landscape might look a decade from now have emerged.

What experts in the field do agree on is that the world of work is on the verge of a sea change, and educators need to take heed. The difficulty in predicting how the employment revolution will unfold means that today’s high school students — perhaps more than any other generation in the last 100 years — must be prepared to adapt to ever-shifting sands.

AI is expected to be exponentially more disruptive than technologies such as the telephone, automobile and personal computers were to jobs and careers in their day. “Whereas those technologies replaced existing tools with better ones, to a large degree AI replaces us,” says Sean Lyons, PhD and professor in the College of Business + Economics at the University of Guelph. “And it directly enables the next wave of new technologies.”

Understanding AI

To understand how artificial intelligence could transform work and society in the near future, we must look beyond the conventional vision of task robots taking over repetitive, low-skill job activities and turn our attention to another aspect of AI technology — the component capable of putting careers of well-educated knowledge workers at risk.Sophisticated machine learning algorithms are capable of independent learning and making decisions and predictions autonomously. Artificial intelligence of that kind has already replaced individuals whose jobs involve data-driven decision-making such as professionals in the investment management and banking fields. Between 2011 and 2017, for example, Goldman Sachs replaced 600 desk traders in its workforce with 200 coding engineers. It’s instructive facts such as these that can help young people — and their parents and counsellors — chart a course for their post-secondary education.

The English Oxford Living Dictionary defines artificial intelligence this way:

The theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making and translation between languages.

In short, AI machines are capable of imitating intelligent human behaviour. They are human-like but not human.

Job jeopardy

Does that mean all kinds of occupations — even those traditionally held by highly-educated professionals, will become vulnerable to AI and automation?“My hunch is to say ‘yes,’ but in ways that are not easy to predict,” Lyons replies. “The narrative now is that AI and robotics will kill jobs, but more accurately these technologies will transform jobs. Some low-skill jobs might be eliminated right away, such as a McDonalds being able to be run with one less crew member because of touch screen and mobile ordering. “But in the immediate future, most jobs are more likely to be AI-enhanced which will ratchet down the qualifications (for the position) and, therefore, the pay and job security of job holders,” adds Lyons, who along with two Canadian colleagues, conducted a five-year research project to look at the generational career shift and how jobs will change in the future.

Lyons cites, as an example, the finance officers at bank branches who once had to gain a lot of experience and customer knowledge to make lending decisions. Gradually, they have been replaced with lower level customer service representatives who enter data that enables the AI system to make the lending decision. These service reps then simply communicate the result to the customer. “A lot of knowledge jobs will be ‘dumbed down’ by reliance on AI, which is more predictable, generates big data and requires no training,” Lyons advises. “As AI and robotics become cheaper and easier to obtain and program, they will do a lot more of our thinking work.”

Advances in AI will also allow robots to do things they couldn’t do before, notes Joel Blit, an assistant professor in the department of economics at University of Waterloo. Blit, who has written on AI and the future of work and advised policymakers on the subject, recently became a member of the university’s new Artificial Intelligence Institute.  AI with the help of robotics, Blit says, will take over jobs in areas such as food and beverage preparation and agriculture, including seed planting and harvesting. “If the types of things you mostly do (in a job) can be substituted by AI and robotics, then you’re going to be in big trouble. “If, on the other hand, AI and robotics are going to complement what you do, then not only are you going to be safe, you’re going to do extremely well. These tools will make you more productive. “For people like me, who try to gain insights from data to understand the bigger picture, AI could be complementary. It could make me more productive, more efficient and, therefore, my wages could go up because I’d be able to do more in a shorter amount of time.”

Bullet-proof?

In Blit’s opinion, data scientists are the closest thing to a bullet-proof profession. “I’ve also heard other areas that are fairly immune are health care (professionals), education and high-level managers. The reason they are at low probability of being replaced is their very large human component which is hard to replace with robots and AI.” Still, Blit offers this caveat when it comes to predicting which jobs hold the best prospects versus which ones will be on the chopping block. “I think you can make an argument for most jobs either way and decide which one is more convincing, but no one really knows.”

Lyons concurs that occupations that involve human services — education as well as law enforcement, medicine and caretaking — and those related to entertainment and the arts will be less affected by AI.“Content creators will use AI tools, but the human element is essential to culture and entertainment, in particular,” Lyons notes. Still he predicts change there, too, as people interact with the technology in ways we cannot yet imagine. And therein lies the dilemma for school counsellors. Steering students on educational and career paths that appear to be good choices today may prove not to be in the longer term as machines become more and more capable of replicating human performance.

Recently, some employment gurus have suggested that types of work that are much more difficult to automate — such as a plumber, carpenter, electrician and auto mechanic — are good prospects for careers in the foreseeable future.While Blit sees merit in that viewpoint, Lyons is not sold on the notion. “I would not be too quick to declare skilled trades AI-proof,” he says. “With technologies like Microsoft’s HoloLens (a wearable computer with an augmented reality visor), it will be possible for highly trained technicians to remotely advise lower-skilled and less-experienced technicians on the job site. Increasingly, craft jobs that require artisanry can be replaced by things like 3D printing.”

Humans wanted

As robotics and AI evolve, their disruptive potential will only increase, even in areas that, today, are considered unlikely candidates for automation.

Recently, it had been suggested there would be solid career prospects related to Big Data, but not all jobs in that sector are good bets over the longer term. Blit feels that people doing basic analysis such as finding relationships in the data will be replaced by AI as the technology’s ability to analyze data and spot patterns grows.Lyons agrees, but is confident “we will need humans with the capacity to know which questions to ask and creatively make connections that are beyond mere number crunching. “Einstein did not develop the theory of general relativity by crunching numbers – he did it with thought experiments that required improvisational thinking. For now, only humans can do that, as far as I know,” he says.

Blit is on the same page with his firm belief that people who frame the questions to be asked, interpret the data and decide what these relationships actually mean will benefit from the AI revolution. AI is not all doom and gloom, Lyons points out. Despite all the jobs that will be negatively affected by AI, completely new, as-yet-unforeseeable career opportunities will arise. “Trying to predict what those occupations will be at this point is like trying to predict how social media would affect our lives when we first brought computers into our homes in the 1980s. It will all unfold in unpredictable ways.”

Supreme skills

The key for today’s students is to focus on their adaptability, Lyons advises. They must always be thinking about the future, rather than getting too comfortable. Blit offers, “These kids should not be thinking about careers for life. They should be thinking about getting the skills that allow them to have possible careers in different fields and different occupations because there’s going to be a huge amount of turmoil. “It’s hard to predict, so it’s more a matter of getting the skills that won’t be replaced (by AI). These technologies are very good at specific tasks, a narrow task, but they’re not very good at being generalists and having a general purpose solution to a bunch of different problems. That’s why some of these broader skills that humans bring are relatively safe.”

Blit strongly encourages students to seek education that will hone their soft skills including creativity, communication skills, empathy, critical thinking, deep thinking, problem solving and judgment.“Those skills are always going to be safe, at least for a long time. The systems will give you the information but you have to be able to decide what to do with it,” he explains. In addition, Blit considers computer programming and data interpretation skills a must for young people. “Those skills will also get you that first job (today) because they are in demand,” he says.

Blit believes that people with an entrepreneurial bent will benefit greatly from the AI-driven revolution. The technology will complement the skills entrepreneurs bring and allow them to implement their visions, ideas or technology and reach millions of people at relatively low cost.  “We need to push entrepreneurship and the culture of entrepreneurship to our kids. I think people who do this are going to benefit hugely in this new world. Being entrepreneurial about your own career and being able to identify new opportunities and move into new sectors is also important.” Lyons recommends that rather than relying on employers or educational institutions, people must stay curious about new innovations, take control of their own career development and embrace new opportunities to gain self-awareness and confidence in their skills. That, he says, is the prescription for navigating increasingly turbulent career paths in the age of AI.

By: Laurie Nealin

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