According to a Gallup poll, many people think AI will destroy jobs, but just not theirs. In fact, in that poll, over 73% of Americans believe that AI will be a net job destroyer, but only 23% of these same surveyed adults were worried about it. How can you reconcile those two positions? In that same survey, over 90% of those polled believed that AI will destroy at least half of all jobs, but 91% of them believed it wouldn’t impact their employment. The general consensus from the average person is that AI is continuing the unimpeded progress of automation and technology that brings increasing levels of productivity. By productivity, we mean it in the economic sense in that businesses are able to do more with their existing resources, and perhaps do more with fewer resources, with those resources being primarily human labor and the costs associated with it.
There is no doubt that the addition of cognitive capabilities in the technologies that companies use will allow organizations to rethink their usage of human labor for activities as wide ranging as call center operations, warehouse activities, trucking and transportation, brick-and-mortar retail, and even mining, oil, and gas activities. According to the 2017 Bureau of Labor & Statistics report, most employment is in retail, professional services, healthcare, and government.
For sure, we can expect AI to take a chunk out of retail, government, and professional services employment. We’re already experiencing a conversion of previously human-intensive labor that involved moving paper or bits and bytes around from one place to another going away as systems become increasingly more integrated and cognitive services replace humans at highly repetitive, regulatory intensive, and error-prone processes. Why have a human move information around when a computer can do just as good a job, especially with the ability to understand the meaning and context of information? Furthermore, there’s no question that the future direction of the transportation, warehouse, and logistics industries is rapidly heading to an autonomous future. Truck driving, which represents the largest employer by number of people employed by category in many US states will clearly be a job position in jeopardy in the future.
Let’s take another look at the BLS labor & statistics report and compare that to previous years. In 1910, manufacturing, transportation, retail, and domestic services were the major employers. Inventions such as the washing machine, dishwasher, microwave, and cooktops / ranges put an end to domestic service as a major employer. Yet, the US didn’t experience massive waves of unemployment, because we invented whole new major sectors of the economy in professional services which barely even existed as a category in 1910. Likewise, the evolution of major employer by category shifted significantly from even 1978, when secretaries were the largest category of employee type. Along came computers and out went entire rooms of typewriters, filing cabinets, and people handling the scheduling of management staff. Yet, again, the United States didn’t have a major economic collapse or massive waves of unemployment because new employment categories emerged before the old ones were fully retired.
Furthermore, there are many categories of employment that will be relatively un-impacted by even super-cognitive AI-enabled systems. The government, healthcare, education, leisure and hospitality, and many professional services categories (notably real estate) will continue being major employers. And we’ve made the point that the addition of AI to these industries will just make humans better at their jobs and more responsive to the needs of other humans, rather than replacing them. After all there’s nothing more human than government or lounging in a hotel. As long as there are humans, we’ll have government, teachers, doctors, and cabanas. Even in areas where robotics has had a significant impact, we see puzzling contradictions. Amazon is employing more people than ever in its warehouses even though it has one of the highest penetrations of intelligent automation.
The real job creator will be entirely new categories of jobs that we can’t even imagine today. If the “2018 you” went back in time to talk to “1988 you” and you told yourself that you’ve got a job in social media marketing, you’d blankly stare back at future you and wonder what the heck you were talking about. Likewise, the 2048 (really old) you would tell yourself about whole sectors of the economy and major employers that would not even be possible today. Yesterday’s manufacturers are today’s programmers. Yesterday’s secretaries are today’s database administrators. Yesterday’s milkmen are today’s Uber drivers. Indeed, it’s not that jobs have been created or destroyed, but rather entire job categories are gone and new ones have taken their place.
Humans have a very, very hard time imagining what sort of new jobs and new sectors will come to be. Since we can only truthfully envision what might be gone tomorrow, but we can’t imagine what will be possible, our limited human minds make the mental calculation that the net impact must be negative. But that’s simply not the case. For sure there will be new categories of jobs that relate directly to creation of AI-enabled capabilities, whether in software or hardware. However, no one can argue that any number of those jobs will make up for the decline in workers that come from using those products. Data scientists, robotic engineers, and ML programmers will not make up for fewer truck drivers or call center workers.
Rather, the creation will be where we least expect it. Will there be entirely new categories of professional services that would be impossible without the use of advanced intelligence as a helper? Will we see a massive wave of self-employment enabled by intelligent assistants and third-party services that turn individuals into major powerhouse corporations of one?
There is no question that the world’s economies are undergoing a fundamental, tectonic shift as we move from one age of industrialization to another — something that many in the industry are calling Industry 4.0. The transition between each wave of industrialization is not necessarily a clean one. If new job categories are not created before old job categories are retired, then the transition can be a messy one. However, it’s clear that we’re already embarked on the transition, and now it remains to be seen what the future will create with the new capabilities that are being developed.
(This article is a shorter excerpt of Cognilytica’s Newsletter piece visible at https://www.cognilytica.com/2018/04/13/ai-is-not-a-job-killer-its-a-job-category-killer/)
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