Walmart last month announced that shoppers soon might see a lot morerobots in its stores — but the company wasn’t referring to toy robots or even humanassistant gadgets that are available for purchase. Walmart’s new robots will be taking over repeatable, predictable and manual tasks that up to now have been carried out by human employees.
At Walmart stores, robots will scan shelf inventory and track boxes aspart of the retail chain’s inventory management. Walmart is hardlyalone in deploying robots or artificial intelligence to handlethese mundane tasks, however. Amazon has increased the use of AI in managing itsfacilities, and in the not-too-distant future, many employees can expectto work side-by-side with such machines on a daily basis.
Roughly36 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 soon could beperformed by machines. This shift could affect not only factory and retailworkers, but cooks, waiters and others in food services, as well as short-haultruck drivers and even clerical office workers.
The timeline could be from the next fewyears 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 toreduce costs, could result in layoffs, with workers replaced bymachines. 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 somewhatradical oath-based organization of English textile workers, took todestroying 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 aconfrontation with today’s workers, but the echoes of concern over machineryreplacing employees have been growing louder. Is the threat AI poses to workers real?
“The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a database that lists occupationsbroken out to tasks, and from this data we’ve seen tasks that aresuitable for machine learning,” noted Ramayya Krishnan, dean ofHeinz 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 abundle of tasks, so a job itself won’t be replaced but some of thetasks may be,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“It is important to make the distinction between the job itself andindividual tasks that make up the job,” said Megan Lamberth,researcher in the technology and national security program at theCenter for a New American Security (CNAS).
“Tasks that involve routine cognitive or physical activity, likedata-base entry or elements of secretarial work, will be highlysusceptible to automation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that theentire job will be automated,” she told TechNewsWorld.
Another example would be bank tellers who have had some of their tasksreplaced 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 byautomation or AI, but a smaller percentage of jobs will be completelyeliminated by these forces,” warned CNAS’ Lamberth.
“Different studies on the future of work have reached varyingconclusions about the percentage of the American workforce that willbe displaced by AI and automation,” she explained. “A commonconclusion exists in many of these studies: The scale of disruptionwill be vast, and we have to determine a way forward to manage thisdisruption.”
Threat to Jobs Overstated
Just as the machinery didn’t kill the British textile industry, and infact created new opportunities, there is the argument that AIactually could improve the lot of modern employees.
“The auto industry is a good example where AI, robots and computerizedsystems 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 bea 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 androbotics, but that would be highly verticalized, such as healthcareand manufacturing,” Rashed added.
The Skill Factor
There is also the argument to be made that even those replaced by AIor robots might have opportunities to acquire new skills.
“Retraining workers displaced by automation or AI will be absolutelynecessary as we move forward, particularly for those in mid-career,”said CNAS’ Lamberth.
“This task of retraining and encouraging life-long learning will haveto be undertaken by a number of different stakeholders, including thegovernment — particularly at the state and local level — as well asthe companies themselves that are introducing increasing levels of AIand automation into their organization,” she added.
In some cases, where jobs are displaced by AI and automation, thoseforces 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 thesenew skills and transition into these new careers, but many at themid-career level will need retraining programs to break into theseemerging fields,” she noted.
Because it likely won’t take a full-on economic crisis for companiesto see the benefits that AI and automation provide, workers shouldn’twait for their jobs to be replaced but should take advantage of allopportunities to get retrained or to acquire new skills.
“Companies will seek to reduce costs by adopting AI or automationwhether the overall economy is prospering or is in a recession,” saidLambert.
“However, an economic recession could accelerate a companyor industry’s adoption of AI or automation, which means this concept ofretraining and life-long learning for those displaced, is critical inthe years ahead,” she added.
Filling Unfillable Jobs
AI also could help fill openings in some industries where there simplyaren’t enough workers. This is certainly true in the tech world,notably in IT and cybersecurity, where there is now a dangerousshortage. 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 andmachine learning could take some of the burden off overstretched ITdepartments.
“Enterprise IT organizations are increasingly embracing AItechnologies to address the cybersecurity skills gap that they arestruggling with,” said Franklyn Jones, CMO of Cequence Security.
In fact, it’s been projected that there will be 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurityjobs within the next couple of years — so it appears that AI is nottaking away jobs at all. On the contrary, AI and other intelligenttechnologies are filling the skills gap by automating many of themanual tasks that normally would be done by a human. Since humanswith 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 byemployers to help retain workers, especially in a tight job market. AIis now being used by HR departments as a tool to help employers knowif employees are thinking about leaving their respective position.
One example is IBM, which has replaced about 30 percent of its HRstaff with AI. In this case it actually is to help retain existingskilled workers — not to replace them with AI, but to ensure that valuable talentdoesn’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 itsworkforce intact — whether by adding a new skill or promoting a deserving worker.
One component of this is through the tracking of social media poststhat can indicate levels of happiness in ways that a human might notsee. AI can find patterns and determine if an employee is consideringa job switch.
“AI is actually made up of four layers; and this includes a sensinglayer where it can sense about an employee’s mood or feelings. Thiscan be a measure of motivation for example,” said Heinz’s Krishnan.
“From sensing you can learn, and then you can decide based on whatyou’ve learned to determine how you’ll act,” he added.
AI also could be used to aid in the recruiting process, but its use toretain or hire employees could come with ethical conundrums.
“The AI is capable of doing it, but it must be done in an appropriateway so that you don’t cross any ethical boundaries,” suggestedKrishnan. “You want to make sure the AI isn’t biased, just as humansin HR need to be free of bias.”