Friday

How Artificial Intelligence Is Reshaping the Workforce

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 to 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 soon could be

performed by machines. This shift could affect not only factory and retail

workers, but 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,

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

data-base 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

actually could 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 burden 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 position.


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 through 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 about 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.”



Peter Suciu has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2012. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile phones, displays, streaming media, pay TV and autonomous vehicles. He has written and edited for numerous publications and websites, including Newsweek, Wired and FoxNews.com.

Email Peter.

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