Artificial Intelligence and the disruption of employment


We are at the cusp of the next industrial revolution—or maybe it’s in full swing already. Artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, cloud computing, smartphones, and a slew of other technologies that were unknown or sci-fi before the turn of the century are redefining and disrupting different aspects of life as we know it today.

As with every industrial revolution, most of the changes overcoming our lives are pleasant. Efficiency, safety, comfort, lower energy consumption, lower costs. These are just some of the advantages brought by these technologies.

But the same trends drag in tow some less appreciated disruptions, namely the upheaval of the socio-economic landscape. Employment is undergoing fundamental changes.

Humans will forfeit many jobs to Artificial Intelligence, including not only manufacturing and blue collar jobs, but also tasks that were previously the exclusive domain of human intelligence. This trend will become exacerbated in the coming years and decades.

However, not a perfect picture is being painted.

AI and its related technologies are also creating thousands of new jobs in the tech sector. Data scientists, software engineers, coders and IT experts, among others, are in high demand. There is already a widening talent gap where tech jobs are concerned. In the cybersecurity domain alone, there’s a shortage of one million security experts. Another million programming jobs in the U.S. are slated to be unoccupied by 2020, according to the Department of Labor. Other domains in tech are facing similar vacancies.

Changes are coming at a much faster pace than any previous cycle of industrial revolution. The tech community has to help smooth the transition and adaptation of the workforce for the changes in employment structure.

Here are three measures that can help achieve this.

Training people for tech jobs

As intelligent and automated systems become more ingrained in our lives, schools and academic institutions must shift toward putting more focus on computer science. This is something we’ve been doing in the past decades.

Future generations will be more inclined toward obtaining the knowledge required to enter high-demand tech jobs.

However, this will not address the woes of people who are working in dissipating job roles. The Rust Belt is an example of how the displacement of manufacturing and middle-class jobs is causing anxiety and frustration.

Government institutions, tech firms and academic organizations need to take the necessary steps to help the workforce to acquire the necessary skills to find employment when their jobs go extinct.

One interesting effort is the TechHire Initiative, the Obama Administration’s campaign to expand local tech sectors by building talent pipelines in communities across the U.S. The project is helping individuals with lower skills, lack of higher academic degrees and from underserved communities to enter well-paying, high-growth technology jobs.

The program is also helping support coding bootcamps and training organizations to make the knowledge and knowhow accessible to more and more people. Services such as Coursera, Big Data University, Codeacademy and edX are offering free online programming and data science courses for those who want to get into the jobs of the future.

Also worth noting are efforts of firms such as Amazon and AT&T to train employees for high-demand job roles. Amazon’s Career Choice initiative pays up to 95 percent of tuition fees for employees who want to learn new skills. The only caveat is that the skill in question is in high demand.

AT&T, the communication giant, is trying to avoid leaving old employees behind as it adapts to new tech trends. The telco has spent over $250 million on training employees for the age of wireless communications, cloud computing and big data.

Education and training has always been a key factor in the progress of human society. It will probably be pivotal at this stage too.

Lowering the bar for entrance into complex job roles

Another factor that can help integrate the workforce into the jobs of the future is to make those jobs easier. Ironically, Artificial Intelligence, “the big job destroyer,” is playing a crucial role in this regard.

With the help of AI-based services and innovations, tasks that previously required complicated skills are becoming more accessible. We’re seeing this trend across many fields.

One of the most interesting developments in this respect is advances in cognitive computing. Thanks to Natural Language Processing and Generation (NLG/NLP), human-computer interaction has undergone huge changes.

This can become a major facilitator in domains such as data science, which previously required thorough technical knowledge of databases. Now, instead of running complex SQL commands across tables and view, data scientists can query databases through simple sentences.

NLP will transform a sentence such as “what are my top 10 selling items” to the right command that the underlying database will understand. You can already see this happen in IBM’s Watson Analytics platform

Subsequently, NLG can turn the query results into a human-understandable report that will complement datasheets and graphs.

One interesting example is Narrative Science, an NLG firm which has made headways in combining analytics and cognitive computing. Narrative Science is helping business intelligence companies provide their clients with narrative descriptions of their data.

In cybersecurity, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are making it easier for security analysts to perform their tasks. This means that in the near-future, people with lower level skills will be able to enter cybersecurity job roles.

AI and Machine Learning are also helping break down the complexity of tasks in fields beyond the tech sector. For instance, in the healthcare sector, ML and AI are helping in research, diagnosis, and treatment. This can reduce the time required to train doctors, physicians, surgeons and other healthcare experts.

Universal basic income

How will people afford their lives when AI-based systems conquer all jobs? That’s not likely to happen in the foreseeable future, but it will eventually come. We should be prepared in advance.

One idea that is worth exploring is Universal Basic Income (UBI), the concept of giving unconditional money to all citizens periodically. Basic income comes with no strings attached and is supposed to support basic life needs. This will be important as jobs become more and more scarce.

There’s a lot of debate over whether basic income will be the answer to the dilemmas of human society. Opponents believe that handing out unconditional cash will eliminate the motivation to become an active member of the society.

Proponents believe that in a future world that is fundamentally different from ours, basic income will make people even more productive. (I personally think that eventually, the efficiency provided by AI, IoT and other related technologies will eliminate money altogether. I will elaborate on that in a future post.)

Some pilot basic income programs are already in progress in different countries. There’s still skepticism surrounding the idea, and test programs are yet to yield firm results.

Interestingly, some of the biggest supporters of the idea are in the tech industry. Y Combinator’s Sam Altman is undertaking a limited basic income program in Oakland. Maybe the tech sector thus wants to redeem its reputation as an enemy of the middle class.

Where do we go from here

I had the pleasure to interview subject matter experts on this issue in the past week. They are unanimous that we’re headed for some great times and unimaginable innovations. I will write about my findings again as I delve deeper into this exciting topic.

Brace yourselves for dramatic changes, some good and some less pleasant. I personally think that anything that helps push us forward as a race and make us smarter than before is a good thing. Artificial Intelligence is no exception. Its benefits will dwarf its tradeoffs if we adopt the right approaches.

AI is a job enabler, not a destroyer. We just have to see it through the right lens.

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