Walmart last month announced that shoppers soon might see a lot more robots in its stores — but the company wasn’t referring to toy robots or even human assistant gadgets that are available for purchase. Walmart’s new robots will be taking over repeatable, predictable, and manual tasks that, up until now, have been carried out by human employees.
At Walmart stores, robots will scan shelf inventory and track boxes as part of the retail chain’s inventory management. Walmart is hardly alone in deploying robots or artificial intelligence to handle these mundane tasks, however. Amazon has increased the use of AI in managing its facilities, and in the not-too-distant future, many employees can expect to work side-by-side with such machines on a daily basis.
Roughly 36 million Americans hold jobs that have a high exposure to automation, according to a January report from the Brookings Institution.
Upwards of 70 percent of tasks done by human workers could soon be performed by machines. This shift could affect not only factory and retail workers but also cooks, waiters, and others in food services, as well as short-haul truck drivers and even clerical office workers.
The timeline could be from the next few years to the next two decades, according to the Brookings study, but economic factors likely will play a major role. An economic downturn, which could compel corporations to seek ways to reduce costs, could result in layoffs, with workers replaced by machines. This has happened in past recessions, so it is safe to assume that the impact could be more severe with the next downturn.
What AI Means for Jobs
With AI and robots handling more “mundane” tasks, what happens to those who typically held those jobs? This is not exactly a new debate.
In the 19th century, the Luddites, a secret and somewhat radical oath-based organization of English textile workers, took to destroying textile machinery as a form of protest. Members of the group were born in the harsh economic conditions of the Napoleonic Wars. The group took its name from Ned Ludd (possibly born Edward Ludlam), and it became so strong that it even clashed with the British Army.
It is unlikely that the military, or even armed security, will have a confrontation with today’s workers, but the echoes of concern over machinery replacing employees have been growing louder. Is the threat AI poses to workers real?
“The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a database that lists occupations broken out to tasks, and from this data, we’ve seen tasks that are suitable for machine learning,” noted Ramayya Krishnan, dean of Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, and president of Informs.
“What we have to remember is that a job is a role that consists of a bundle of tasks, so a job itself won’t be replaced, but some of the tasks may be,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“It is important to make the distinction between the job itself and individual tasks that make up the job,” said Megan Lamberth, a researcher in the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).
“Tasks that involve routine cognitive or physical activity, like database entry or elements of secretarial work, will be highly susceptible to automation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire job will be automated,” she told TechNewsWorld.
Another example would be bank tellers who have had some of their tasks replaced by an ATM. “So the question isn’t whether or not so much of an occupation will change, but how some of the tasks will be done via technology,” said Heinz’s Krishnan.
“Most jobs will be impacted in some shape or form by automation or AI, but a smaller percentage of jobs will be completely eliminated by these forces,” warned CNAS’ Lamberth.
“Different studies on the future of work have reached varying conclusions about the percentage of the American workforce that will be displaced by AI and automation,” she explained. “A common conclusion exists in many of these studies: The scale of disruption will be vast, and we have to determine a way forward to manage this disruption.”
Threat to Jobs Overstated
Just as the machinery didn’t kill the British textile industry and, in fact, created new opportunities, there is the argument that AI could actually improve the lot of modern employees.
“The auto industry is a good example where AI, robots, and computerized systems are nicely integrated with human workers,” said Bryon Rashed, vice president of marketing at cybersecurity firm Centripetal.
“While it is an attractive option to human labor, there will always be a need to supervise, check, maintain, and program these technologies, which will generate higher-level jobs,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“Depending on the sector, you will see various forms of AI and robotics, but that would be highly verticalized, such as healthcare and manufacturing,” Rashed added.
The Skill Factor
There is also the argument to be made that even those replaced by AI or robots might have opportunities to acquire new skills.
“Retraining workers displaced by automation or AI will be absolutely necessary as we move forward, particularly for those in mid-career,” said CNAS’ Lamberth.
“This task of retraining and encouraging life-long learning will have to be undertaken by a number of different stakeholders, including the government — particularly at the state and local level — as well as the companies themselves that are introducing increasing levels of AI and automation into their organization,” she added.
In some cases, where jobs are displaced by AI and automation, those forces could lead to the creation of new jobs and even careers.
“Many of these jobs we haven’t even conceived of yet,” said Lamberth.
“Those at the beginning of their career will be able to learn these new skills and transition into these new careers, but many at the mid-career level will need retraining programs to break into these emerging fields,” she noted.
Because it likely won’t take a full-on economic crisis for companies to see the benefits that AI and automation provide, workers shouldn’t wait for their jobs to be replaced but should take advantage of all opportunities to get retrained or to acquire new skills.
“Companies will seek to reduce costs by adopting AI or automation whether the overall economy is prospering or is in a recession,” said Lambert.
“However, an economic recession could accelerate a company or industry’s adoption of AI or automation, which means this concept of retraining and life-long learning for those displaced, is critical in the years ahead,” she added.
Filling Unfillable Jobs
AI also could help fill openings in some industries where there simply aren’t enough workers. This is certainly true in the tech world, notably in IT and cybersecurity, where there is now a dangerous shortage. It’s been estimated that by 2021, there will be 3 million openings in cybersecurity.
Retraining workers to fill those positions isn’t an option, but AI and machine learning could take some of the burdens off overstretched IT departments.
“Enterprise IT organizations are increasingly embracing AI technologies to address the cybersecurity skills gap that they are struggling with,” said Franklyn Jones, CMO of Cequence Security.
In fact, it’s been projected that there will be 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs within the next couple of years — so it appears that AI is not taking away jobs at all. On the contrary, AI and other intelligent technologies are filling the skills gap by automating many of the manual tasks that normally would be done by a human. Since humans with those skills are unavailable in sufficient numbers, machines need to fill the void.
AI to Retain Workers
The other end of the spectrum for AI is in how it could be used by employers to help retain workers, especially in a tight job market. AI is now being used by HR departments as a tool to help employers know if employees are thinking about leaving their respective positions.
One example is IBM, which has replaced about 30 percent of its HR staff with AI. In this case, it actually is to help retain existing skilled workers — not to replace them with AI, but to ensure that valuable talent doesn’t jump ship.
The HR AI was designed to help employees identify opportunities for new skills training, education, job promotions, and raises. In other words, AI can predict why employees may be thinking of seeking greener pastures elsewhere. By addressing these issues, IBM can keep its workforce intact — whether by adding a new skill or promoting a deserving worker.
One component of this is the tracking of social media posts that can indicate levels of happiness in ways that a human might not see. AI can find patterns and determine if an employee is considering a job switch.
“AI is actually made up of four layers, and this includes a sensing layer where it can sense an employee’s mood or feelings. This can be a measure of motivation, for example,” said Heinz’s Krishnan.
“From sensing, you can learn, and then you can decide based on what you’ve learned to determine how you’ll act,” he added.
AI also could be used to aid in the recruiting process, but its use to retain or hire employees could come with ethical conundrums.
“The AI is capable of doing it, but it must be done in an appropriate way so that you don’t cross any ethical boundaries,” suggested Krishnan. “You want to make sure the AI isn’t biased, just as humans in HR need to be free of bias.”