AI and the Workforce: Looking Forward
Artificial intelligence has been making its way into the economy for decades. From assembly line robots all the way down to Redbox DVD rentals, functions once fulfilled by human workers have been taken over by automated processes. In employment terms, many employees tasked with routine jobs have been replaced by a few charged with keeping the computers and mechanical parts in correct functioning order. As further technological gains make the automation of more jobs possible, companies must balance the reduced costs and increased efficiency of automated processes while also knowing where the human element remains critical to their interests.
Here are some trends to watch for:
Consider, as a single example, all types of phone operators. Whether receptionists taking inbound calls or telemarketers calling out, more and more of these tasks are partially replaced by computers running scripted messages. In many cases, especially for workplaces receiving customer calls, the automated system is designed to handle a client’s call start to finish unless they have a specific question for which the computer doesn’t have the answer. However, as voice recognition software improves and databases are able to retrieve answers to an ever-widening number of questions, and as automated voices become human enough to keep people from hanging up immediately upon taking a call from one, human labor will be filtered out of this market almost completely.
A reduced advantage in offshoring jobs
In the current market, companies who look towards less developed areas for cheaper talent or manufacturing already have to make decisions based on how long new areas will be worth investment. After all, nobody keeps a secret for long, and eventually, more companies with similar interests will enter a location and raise wages to the point where the benefit of hiring overseas becomes less, or not at all, worth the effort. For industries that become mostly or fully automated, that decision may well be made, as there will be almost no reason to build away from the company’s home country. Workers require wages based on local circumstances, but a robot costs what a robot costs no matter where you are.
More focus on hiring workers with creative and communication skills. While technical skill will be required to maintain a largely automated workplace, all businesses still need customers. Money saved through automation will, especially in highly competitive industries, need to be funneled towards a sales and advertising staff capable of finding the best messaging for their employers and every potential route towards finding new customers.
Understanding exactly what new skills an automated economy needs will be a major advantage. Although it’s easy to look at what people do now and extrapolate which of those skills are least (or most) likely to translate to automation, every major technological shift comes with the burgeoning of skill sets that no one could have anticipated until they existed. Since the type of automation new AIs is capable of bringing may hail the largest workforce shift in human history, determining what those skills are will be an extraordinary challenge, with huge benefits accruing to those who figure it out first.
Managing AIs that manage AIs
Here’s a first guess for what one of those new skills will be: having staff members that know how to run an artificial intelligence that is itself capable of building and managing other machines. Though it’s the stuff of dystopian science fiction movies and books, the more layers of automation you can work into your business, the more efficient you should be. But you are always going to need trusted, competent people who can run and fix those machines, and the first people who know how to do that will be some of the most valuable in the workforce.
The outlook for a more automated workforce is positive but challenging. Companies will need to know how to balance maximizing their efficiency via automated tasks with understanding how to make their way in world where everyone else is doing the same. While there is considerable debate over how much current issues with filling jobs is due to skill mismatch, there will be a period of time where that debate will not exist–millions of people who performed routine tasks for a living will not have the skills for a world where none of those jobs require paying a person to perform them. There will be difficulties for everyone, but any company that can stay ahead will be very well set up to succeed in the years and decades to come once automation becomes a fact of life.