We’ve all heard reports of whole industries soon being wiped out by automation.
There is no doubt that Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics and automation are rapidly changing the way we live and work. UK physicist Stephen Hawking even once said that, “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”
But how fearful should we really be of AI replacing huge sections of the workforce in the coming decades?
First, some stats…
A McKinsey Global Institute analysis of 750 jobs concluded that 45 percent of paid activities could be automated using “currently demonstrated technologies” and that 60 percent of occupations could have 30 percent or more of their processes automated.
A 2013 Oxford University study backed up these figures, stating that 47 percent of jobs in the US were at high risk of automation.
However, casting a slightly different light, a recent report by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne concluded that only 14 percent of jobs are “highly automatable,” meaning the likelihood of it being automated is 70 percent or higher.
While the different conclusions reached by studies like these show the complexity of the issue, the findings still cast a fairly dark shadow over the role that AI will play in job creation and elimination.
Automation or elimination?
Amid all the doomsday predictions, there are some factors that are being overlooked.
- The “human factor” and its positive impact on business
- Where automation does occur, it’s likely that entire roles won’t be replaced, only a portion of them
A 2018 report by PwC determined that AI and related technologies are projected to eliminate 7 million existing jobs in the UK over the next 20 years.
It also found that AI will also create 7.2 million new jobs.
According to John Hawksworth, chief economist at PwC, “Major new technologies, from steam engines to computers, will displace some existing jobs but also generate large productivity gains. This reduces prices and increases real income and spending levels, which in turn creates demand for additional workers. Our analysis suggests the same will be true of AI, robots and related technologies, but the distribution of jobs across sectors will shift considerably in the process.”
Replacing jobs to create new ones
It would have been impossible to accurately predict the extent of changes that electrification would bring to society after the first electric light bulbs were demonstrated in the late 19th century.
Similarly, it is difficult to predict how many new jobs will be created by highly responsive and efficient fleets of automated cars even as the cars themselves replace human drivers.
As AI technologies become integrated into all industries from manufacturing, healthcare, agriculture, retail, and software development, new opportunities are also being created via the productivity gains they bring and new commercial markets they allow.
This suggests that it’s probably not so much the raw numbers of jobs that will be created or destroyed by AI that we should be focusing on. Instead, it makes more sense to try and better understand how AI will change industries so that we can be better prepared to embrace those changes and ensure we have the skills to properly manage them.
So is it true that many millions of warehousing jobs will be replaced by AI controlled picking and packing robots?
But those robots will increase the efficiency and profits of companies like Amazon that distribute the goods we buy online. As prices for online goods drop and the volume of goods shipped from automated warehouses increases, more management and distribution staff will be needed to oversee the increased sales and shipments. And more drivers (or perhaps drone pilots) will be needed to deliver them.
More hardware and software engineers will be required to build and maintain the robots. Developments of the robot technology may also lead to them being used in many other industries or to the creation of entirely new technologies.
So just as some jobs disappear, others emerge to replace them. And some of these are jobs that haven’t even been thought of yet.
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