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Will AI Revolution Lead to Mass Unemployment?

Business.com / Technology / Last Modified: April 24, 2017

Artificial Intelligence-based systems and chatbots are taking every industry by storm. As much as they are playing an important role in making tasks and processes better, their effect on human-centered jobs and capabilities in the workplace has become a major debate.

Artificial intelligence-based systems and chatbots are taking every industry by storm. As much as they are playing an important role in making tasks and processes better, their effect on human-centered jobs and capabilities in the workplace has become a major debate. The jobs that most of the people are currently doing, may get obsolete or automated sooner than you think.

A few months ago, a statement from Elon Musk broke the Internet, where he said AI-powered systems and automation technologies are going to replace most human jobs very soon. He also suggested that all countries may have to adapt universal basic income programs for their citizens to cope with the aftermath of this revolution. 

At this time, we all need tech enthusiasts and language programmers to create algorithms that automate the processes. Even the AI systems are based on languages and programs coded by humans and designed by humans. However, this is where AI has an edge. An AI-powered system has an ability to reach a singularity point where it becomes able to program itself, learn itself and implement itself. At this point, what role will humans play?

Is AI there to replace human jobs eventually?

This bold step has already been taken by Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance in Japan. The company stated that by the end of March, 34 of its employees will be replaced with an artificial intelligence system that can calculate payouts on policyholders. Although this may look like just a tiny cost-cutting technique by a company, it has a much deeper impact. It raises the question of what will happen to the future of employment.

From the perspective of a company, a computer does not look forward to a handsome paycheck at the end of every month; however, having a computer to work for you is not free either. To hire a computer as your employee, you have to bear development costs and also compare that cost with the total amount you would eventually be saving. Fukoku Life Insurance brought in an AI which costed them £1.4m, but the company's experts say that it would be saving £1m yearly. In addition to just the development and procurement costs, like any other machine, your AI would also need routine and unplanned maintenance. The company reported it costs about £100k a year.

The figures look good from a financial perspective, but many questions still need to be answered. Most important (from a company’s point of view) is the quality of a product, especially because the company is a service provider, and their product is not a tangible commodity. Whether AI can give a satisfactory quality of service or not must be the deepest concern for service companies. Would programmers be able to code the compassion into the machine? This can also be a debate.

However, there is another factor: the social acceptance of the fact that a person would lose a job every time a machine is assigned to perform his or her task. The growth of human jobs with the increase in AI-based platforms is not that significant, which might raise a few eyebrows. Soon, we can expect a number of organizations emerging from the need to regulate this change. Also, we are likely to face greater resistance from the people who are at the risk of losing their jobs.

Which jobs are vulnerable to AI revolution?

In a widely acclaimed study, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne found out the probability of automation for 702 jobs, and found that 47 percent of employees in America are at high risk of losing jobs because of automation and AI. Their study warned the employees working in transport and logistics (taxi drivers and courier drivers are to be replaced by self-driving cars and car-pools), office support staff (security guards and front-desk officers to be replaced by computerized check-ins and securities), and sales and customer support staff (cashiers, telemarketers, call-center assistants, clerks are to be replaced with chatbots and machines).

The study also stated that “recent developments in machine learning and artificial intelligence will put a substantial share of employment, across a wide range of occupations, at risk in the near future.” Some other studies also noted an equivalent figure of 35 percent for the workforce for the United Kingdom (where more people work in creative industries less susceptible to automation) and 49 percent for Japan.

How does the future look?

Are we heading towards a future where automation will make employment a scarcity? "We are expecting 500 billion objects to become connected to the Internet, and this automation is going to hollow out middle and working class jobs," explained Jane Fraser, CEO of Citigroup's Latin America business, while speaking at Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif.  

But this is just one side of the story. AI will also create new jobs in the field. Self-driving cars may need drivers for emergency rides. More tech developers to create chatbots for every industry and most of all more AI-trainers to train chatbots to act like a human. Like websites, all the systems needs to be maintained and constantly updated. No matter how advanced and super-efficient AI may become, some jobs are always done better by humans, including doctors, therapists, hairdressers and personal trainers. An analysis of the British workforce by Deloitte highlighted a profound shift over the past two decades towards “caring” jobs: the number of nursing assistants increased by 909 percent, teaching assistants by 580 percent and care workers by 168 percent.

On one side, there are techies who say that machines and AI are ready to take all the jobs. On the other side, there are economists who say that AI revolution or any new technology always create more jobs than they destroy. Well, the real answer lies somewhere in between. Artificial Intelligence will not lead to mass unemployment, but it will shake up the foundation of many companies that rely on outdated technologies, which will result in huge losses and then layoffs. Those companies that will embrace it, will disrupt the industry and speed up the existing trend of computer-related automation which will enable their employees to learn new skills more quickly than in the past.

Photo credit: Willyam Bradberry/Shutterstock

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