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Automation, AI, and the Future of Work

November 21, 2022


With a number of economists predicting the U.S. is heading into recession, the labor market is being watched closely. Despite talk of recession, journalist Ali Donaldson (@AliCDonaldson) reports, “The job market is humming along, and consumer spending is holding steady despite the highest prices in 40 years.”[1] Donaldson notes that the strong job numbers don’t mean a recession isn’t coming, just that’s it’s not here yet. She cites economists Tim Quilan and Shannon Seery who observe, “We are forecasting recession, but we do not have it starting until early next year. The strength of the labor market today is the best argument against those saying we are already in recession.” Although the economy plays the lead role in maintaining a strong labor market, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are often mentioned as potential disruptors of future jobs sustainability.


Half a decade ago, journalist Kevin J. Ryan (@wheresKR) observed, “There’s a big temptation for businesses to use artificial intelligence to shave off time and money wherever they can, but experts say that’s not the smartest use of the technology.”[2] Obviously, one way to save time and money is to replace human employees with machines. And there are signs that is occurring. Ryan reported, “Many of the jobs that have been displaced by machines are of the manual-labor kind: bots that fulfill orders in Amazon warehouses, for example, and machines that move products along an assembly line.” As AI improves and is integrated into more customer-facing solutions, more human-centric jobs could be at risk. Ryan explained, “The assumption has been that those jobs that require more training would be safe for some time. Arguably, that’s no longer the case.” Ryan’s observations beg the question: How have things changed over the past five years?


Will Automation and AI Replace People?


Since pundits are still asking questions about the possibility of automation and AI replacing people, it seems not much has changed over the past five years. Career coach Ashley Stahl (@AshleyStahl) believes a definitive answer to the question — “Will automation and AI replace People?” — has not yet been determined. She explains, “The answer to that seems to be divided. According to Pew Research, about half (48%) of experts surveyed felt that robots and digital agents will displace a significant number of blue- and white-collar jobs. Their concern is that this will increase income inequality and create a mass of virtually unemployable people. The other half (52%) expect robotics and AI to create more jobs than they take. This latter half believes that while AI will replace humans, these experts have faith in human ingenuity to create new jobs, industries, and new ways of making a living — much like at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.”[3]


To date, fears about a massive displacement of human workers have not been realized. Stahl explains, “AI is evolving and technology is having an increasingly bigger role, but it will complement and augment most jobs, not replace them. In a study involving 1500 companies, researchers found that the most significant performance improvements occurred when humans and machines worked together.” Before we get too sanguine about jobs sustainability, however, Brookings staff writer Michael Gaynor (@michael_gaynor) reminds us that the future remains unsettled.[4] He also explains that automation and artificial intelligence affect job security for two very different groups.


Concerning automation, he writes, “For years, we’ve been hearing about how these advancements will force mainly blue-collar, lower-income workers out of jobs, as robotics and technology slowly consume those industries.” He points to a Brookings report that concluded, “The debate between experts over how automation will affect the future of work has been one of the most active cottage industries in labor economics in recent years. Numerous scholars forecast major disruptions of human work; others minimize those impacts. And yet, the field has nevertheless managed to generate a number of shared insights, with none more consistent than the finding that least well-off will suffer automation’s greatest shocks on the labor market.”


Gaynor goes on to note that advances in artificial intelligence will affect an entirely different group of workers. He explains, “Many readers, journalists, and even experts were perplexed by the report’s primary finding: that, for the most part, it is better-paid, better-educated white-collar workers who are most exposed to AI’s potential economic disruption.” He adds, “So how do we square these two seemingly disparate conclusions? The key is in distinguishing artificial intelligence and automation, two similar-sounding concepts that nonetheless will have very different impacts on the future of work here in the U.S. and across the globe. Highlighting these distinctions is critical to understanding what types of workers are most vulnerable, and what we can do to help them.”


The Future of Work


Stahl believes people are asking the wrong question. She writes, “Leading expert Martina Mara, professor of robopsychology at Johannes Kepler University Linz, suggests we ask a different question: What do we want the future of work to look like?” Will automation, robots, and AI play a significant role in the future work environment? Undoubtedly. That’s why Stahl concludes, “We should already be thinking of how we as employers and employees can harness robots to augment the work we do.
If not already, it won’t be long before your next co-worker is a robot.” Although Gaynor agrees we should be proactively guiding the future of work, he insists policymakers and business owners must keep in mind that automation and AI affect two different work groups. He explains, “As policymakers draw up potential solutions to protect workers from technological disruption, it’s important to keep in mind the differences between advancements like AI and automation at large — and who, exactly, they’re poised to affect.”


Although the nature of work may change, few would argue that displacing the human workforce is a good thing. The eighteenth-century philosopher François-Marie Arouet, better known by his nom de plume Voltaire, once wrote, “Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.” That platitude still rings true. Journalist Umme Sutarwala (@umme_sutarwala) argues that rather than trying to halt technological progress workers should embrace it. “AI is here to stay,” she writes, “and it will assist people in working more efficiently. The role of AI in worker rights is critical.”[5] And Jason Kingdon, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer at Blue Prism, adds, “Already we have seen that incorporating new technologies has led to a dramatic shift in the way industries operate worldwide. We are also witnessing a significant rise in interest for robotic process automation (RPA), intelligent automation and artificial intelligence among business leaders who realize that intelligent automation demonstrates strong transformative potential across all industries.”[6]


Like Stahl, Kingdon believes workers will successfully adapt to this new working environment. “The past year has proved that our workforce is resilient, flexible and capable of adjusting to many challenges,” he writes. “As businesses around the globe embrace new work environments and technologies, we’ve seen a growing level of trust in automation as employees adapt to digital colleagues. They are excited about the opportunities intelligent automation creates, embracing benefits that allow them to focus more on creative, meaningful work. Businesses that provide employees with training and reassurance as these digital workers are introduced enable the smoothest transition.” Nevertheless, the future of work is still an unsettled matter. Humans, not machines, should be directing how technology is going to affect jobs sustainability.


[1] Ali Donaldson, “Are We in a Recession? Economists Say Not Yet, But One Is Probably Coming,” Inc., 30 July 2022.
[2] Kevin J. Ryan, “Will You Lose Your Job to Artificial Intelligence? Here’s What the Experts Really Think,” Inc., 10 January 2017.
[3] Ashley Stahl, “The Rise Of Artificial Intelligence: Will Robots Actually Replace People?” Forbes, 3 May 2022.
[4] Michael Gaynor, “Automation and AI sound similar, but may have vastly different impacts on the future of work,” The Brookings Institution, 29 January 2020.
[5] Umme Sutarwala, “Artificial Intelligence: A Blessing or Bane for the Employees?” Enterprise Talk, 27 December 2021.
[6] Jason Kingdon, “4 Reasons Why Workers Should Welcome Artificial Intelligence In the Workplace,” Entrepreneur, 2 March 2021.

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