As machines take over our jobs, human ingenuity has an opportunity to shine

While fear has initially dominated the conversation around AI and the automation of our economy, more recent predictions suggest there's also real human opportunity in this tidal wave of disruption.

Automation will ultimately create 58 million more jobs than it will destroy, report says

Employees assemble robots, largely used for customer service, at a factory in Handan, China on Aug. 27, 2018. An estimated 75 million jobs will be displaced by automation by 2022, according to a recent report. But millions more will emerge. (AFP/Getty Images)

For years, we've been warned that progress in artificial intelligence (AI) will mean dire setbacks for human workers, widespread job losses — and generally a tidal wave of disruption.

There's perhaps reason to be unnerved as we look to blend automation with human capital.

Take, for example, a patent filed by online retail giant Amazon, which seems to envision humans working in warehouses and other spaces automated by robots confined to metal cages.

Amazon was granted the patent back in 2016, but it was recently discussed in a research paper titled Anatomy of an AI System.

"U.S. patent number 9,280,157 represents an extraordinary illustration of worker alienation, a stark moment in the relationship between humans and machines," the researchers write.

The company has said that the cage concept was never used and a "far better" solution was developed.

But by contrast, a number of new studies claim that AI, overall, will do more good than harm to the global economy. While that might sound like welcome news to those who fear their jobs are at risk of becoming redundant, is it too good to be true?

"Initially, fear dominated the discussion [around AI]," said Bradley Staats, an operations professor in the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School and author of Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself, and Thrive.

But now, "we are seeing the pendulum swing a bit back toward optimism," he said.

Any advancement in technology inevitably leads to some elimination of jobs, Staats said, as well as complementary innovation — where people use the technology to do entirely new things.

"It is easy to initially see the substitution — what jobs can be automated away," he said. "It takes longer to appreciate the changes that will enable humans to work with machines to accomplish new things."

Amazon has long used automation to help the humans in its warehouses, like in this fulfilment centre in Robbinsville, N.J. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

According to the World Economic Forum's latest Future of Jobs report, 58 million new jobs will be created thanks to advances in AI — a statistic that is markedly different from many of the cautionary warnings about automation and job displacement to date.

But while those numbers seem to be reassuring at first glance, the fine print of the report reveals a slightly more complex scenario: An estimated 75 million existing roles will be displaced by automation by 2022, which is a lot of jobs lost in a very short amount of time. But at the same time, there's the potential for 133 million new roles to emerge "that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms," ultimately resulting in net job growth.

It suggests that the huge wave of disruption we've been warned about is coming, but the predictions also assume it will be more than balanced out as new roles emerge.

Embracing upskilling

These shifts are being driven by two interconnected fronts of transformation in the workforce, according to WEF. On one hand is the widespread decline in certain jobs, as tasks within these roles become automated. But in parallel, large-scale growth in new products and services, and associated new jobs, will be generated by the adoption of new technologies.

These predictions are echoed by a report, titled Modelling the Impact of AI on the World Economy, from management consulting firm McKinsey.

For individual workers, demand and wages may grow for those with digital and cognitive skills, as well as for those with expertise in tasks that are hard to automate, such as analysts, software developers and digital transformation specialists, the McKinsey report says. But demand will shrink for workers performing repetitive tasks, such as data entry, bookkeeping or stock-taking.

Amid this profound transformation, often referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, retraining and upskilling are essential for workers to keep up with the pace of change.

Students in a robotics and coding club at a primary school in Johannesburg, South Africa work on their projects on Sept. 12, 2018. As the automation of our economy advances, many workers will require significant reskilling and upskilling. (Wikus de Wet/AFP/Getty Images)

Employers surveyed for the WEF report estimate that by 2022, over half of all employees will require significant reskilling and upskilling.

"Almost every job will be touched by AI and analytics eventually," said Staats. "That means lots of knowledge workers need to learn how to work with data."

Staats expects that we will see a shift in skills and expertise, from a know-it-all approach to a learn-it-all approach.

But just because we'll all be working alongside AI doesn't mean that everyone needs to be a computer scientist.

According to the WEF report, proficiency in new technologies is only one part of the equation; innately "human" skills, such as creativity, initiative, resilience, flexibility and complex problem-solving, will also prove to be extremely valuable.

"As machines take over more and more of the routine tasks that consume work today, we are presented with the gift of found capacity — time that can be spent on other activities that can generate far more value for the company or institution," said John Hagel, co-chairman of Deloitte's Silicon Valley-based Center for the Edge

'Fundamental shift' in focus

Rather than reducing the size of the workforce, Hagel says employers need to recognize there is an opportunity to create much more value by shifting the focus of human workers.

What that means is that while the rise of artificial intelligence has historically been seen as a threat to the human workforce, AI's true benefit is the untapped human potential it frees up.

But this requires a "fundamental shift from the focus on efficiency and profits that currently drives the growth of most corporations," said Hagel.

Case in point: That Amazon patent for the cybernetic cage, which is a rather dystopian example of what happens when efficiency is put before all else, shining a light on the underbelly of this current wave of decidedly more optimistic reports.

And what does this mean for the future of our workforce?

When we try to act like machines, robots can do a better job than we can. AI can outperform us at repetitive, programmable tasks, operating faster and more efficiently.

But luckily machines aren't good at being humans — creativity, ingenuity and complex problem-solving still sit squarely in the wheelhouse of people.

Smart businesses will see that sustained success isn't about scaling back a workforce by replacing human labourers with automated systems. Instead, it's about using machines wisely, so humans can do a better job at being human than we've ever been able to do before.


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.


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