AI won’t lead to ‘jobpacalypse’ overnight, panel agrees

You probably won’t be replaced in the office by an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm tomorrow, but get ready to pick up some new skills to make yourself useful as more human tasks become automated, a panel of experts cautioned at IT World Canada’s Technicity event Dec. 12.

The rapid adoption of AI by many industries has some concerned that we’re at the start of a big transformation in the workplace. One in which many people will find themselves out of work and replaced by a robot, or a piece of software. A panel of experts that are either running AI-based companies or work with them closely talked about the benefits and challenges of the impending shift.

Panelist Jeremy Depow, vice-president of policy and research at the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), cast a suspect eye on recent studies predicting the end of certain occupations due to AI. Any shift that results in the elimination of jobs isn’t going to happen overnight, he said.

“It’s not going to be the jobpacalypse,” he said. “It’s not going to be a sudden effect of massive job loss.”

Instead of just getting canned, workers will have to pick up more skills and learn more disciplines to stay employed, Depow says. Rather than divide professional skills into silos, workers will have to have a wide range of technical skills, problem-solving capabilities, and creativity.

It’ll be jobs that are on the lower end of the skills spectrum, says Roy Pereira, the CEO of ZoomAI, a Toronto-based startup that develops AI assistants.

Jeremy Depow, VP Policy and Research, ICTC
Jeremy Depow, VP of policy and research, ICTC, spoke on a panel at Technicty on the topic of AI in the workforce.

“There’s this disconnect. The jobs are going away on the lower end, but can they be retrained? Probably not,” he said, referring to a report released by McKinsey. “I don’t know if we can transition everyone from the job they’ve lot to the new job.”

The McKinsey Global Institute report, Jobs lost, jobs gained: Workforce transitions in a time of automation, compares the jobs that could be lost to automation to the jobs that could be created by automation.

Rather than ask whether a person’s job could be 100 per cent replaced by an AI algorithm of some sort, it looks at what aspects of a job could be completed through automation. It predicts that about half of all work activities are technically automatable, just by adapting technologies that have already been demonstrated. Six out of 10 occupations have more than 30 per cent of activities that are technically automatable.

McKinsey provides three different lenses that gaze into a crystal ball, predicting how many workers will be displaced by automation by 2030. If automation technology is adopted as slowly as possible, it could only be 10 million workers. If it’s at its fastest pace of adoption, it could be as much as 800 million workers. At the mid-point, it will be about 400 million workers affected.

Jobs of the future - McKinsey
A McKinsey infographic looks at how the workforce will change due to automation.

The report also contains a section on the historical precedent of new technology being introduced into the workplace. While there’s a significant short-term labor displacement, in the long term there are new jobs created and increased demand for some existing jobs. The combined effect is more jobs overall and a larger economy.

One job that’s sure to be in higher demand is that of data scientist, predicts Marlina Kinnersley, the co-founder of Fortay Inc., an analytics software firm. But companies will also be able to fulfill their data-knowledge needs by retraining current workers, she says.

The shift brought by AI tools will see workers given opportunities to move higher up the value chain, says Evan Ross, principal at consultant firm Dimensional Strategies Inc. It will do away with the jobs that no one really wants anyway.

“There will be less time doing the drudgery that maintenance technicians have to do,” he says.

McKinsey also points out in its report that aside from the impact of AI on the global workforce that there are other factors to consider in assessing a future job market. As developing economies see 1 billion people enter the consuming class by 2025, the resulting demand could create between 300 million to 365 million new jobs globally.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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