Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning – are they replacing the workforce?


The fear factor – rise of the machines – from HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey to 2020’s Robot Riot, Hollywood has long had an obsession with machines turning against us. But are they now taking our jobs?

AI has been around formally since the 1950s, when the term was coined during a conference at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and is increasingly used in ways we couldn’t imagine before – from self-driving cars and online customer service to robot language teachers and intelligent lawn mowers.

It’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) in one form or another that powers many of our favourite apps and websites. Soon, AI will be operating our cars and increasingly manufacturing the things we buy.

Equally, AI’s sister technology, Machine Learning (ML) – the study of computer algorithms that improve automatically through experience and by the use of data – is enabling us to study massive data sets and extrapolate trends and crucial information faster than ever before. Think about the rapid journey to creating the raft of COVID-19 vaccines – that journey was underpinned by Machine Learning.

Both technologies have proved their worth. But do AI and ML herald a bright new future – or an eerie new machine-controlled dystopian nightmare? Should we be embracing new technology, or reacting like 21st century Luddites?

I wholeheartedly err on the side of the bright new future. While Artificial intelligence is poised to eliminate current jobs, it will equally create new ones — some of which haven’t even been invented yet. And this is a very interesting, exciting prospect.

The slow rise of robots

ML takes away a lot of mundane data analysis, and is geared towards allowing mass interpretation of data, enabling us humans to concentrate on more cerebral tasks.

And yes, the robots might be rising, but that rise is far slower than some analysts and media pundits might have us believe — good news for those among us who think robots and other AI-powered technology will soon steal our jobs.

Analysts and industry experts mostly agree certain professions will become automated in the next decade. Forbes Technology Council has compiled a hit list, including warehouse and manufacturing, insurance underwriting, customer service, long haul trucking and a perhaps worryingly broad category titled “Any Tasks That Can Be Learned.”

IBM president, Ginni Rometty, was quoted as saying: “I expect AI to change 100 percent of jobs within the next five to 10 years,” but far from scaremongering, Rometty’s statement was part of a wider announcement that the pioneering IT company was planning a US$1 billion investment in initiatives like apprenticeships to train workers for what it describes as “new collar” jobs.

There’s more, acclaimed AI guru Kai-Fu Lee, CEO of Sinovation Ventures, reckons 50% of all jobs will be automated by AI within 15 years. But again, rather than doom-mongering, he takes the time to explain that “there are still many important jobs that will be safe from AI infiltration. Remember: AI is powerful and adaptable, but it can’t do everything that humans do.”

Let’s agree that AI and ML will be replacing jobs in the future. But key to the inevitable change in work practices is to realise now what is happening, and what might happen to your role. Understand the changes. Upskill, re-train, embrace change and learn to adapt and benefit from it. If there’s one thing the pandemic has highlighted, it’s how we – as a race of non-androids – can adapt, pivot, and react quickly to ever-changing situations with resilience and aplomb.

Just like the effect the industrial revolution had on traditional farming and work practices, we are now entrenched in the fourth industrial revolution – the time when technology, connectivity and robotics will come to the fore, and change how the world works.

The rapid rise of new roles

Given the changing face of technology, work practices and the ubiquitous use of the internet, demand for a new breed of tech-savvy workers, especially in robotics and software engineering, will rise.

AI & ML are still simply tools. Tools for human use. As technologies, they still rely on humans to work, to enable them to complete tasks, and crucially, human ingenuity is still the special sauce at the heart of all new technologies. We are still at a point where most technologies designed to automate tasks or make our human lives easier, involve more work than the work they are designed to replace. But the inflection point – where this flips – is on the horizon. Soon, AI will be doing a lot of work previously done by humans, with less need for human interaction.

Ironically, reaching this point will take a great deal of ingenuity – and a great many people.

Increased productivity and efficiency free us up, mere mortals, for more creative tasks. Could the rise of the robot lead to the shorter working week we all dream of? Technology may well displace certain workers or tasks, but that work can be redirected into more productive human-centred activities.

It’s long been discussed that what makes us human is our ability to act with compassion and empathy. These qualities will remain valuable in society. As Lee puts it, roles that hinge on care, creativity and education will remain vital.

And those unimagined jobs I mentioned above? Now’s the time to do your research. Think how we will monitor AI-driven tools and tasks. How will it be trained? How can we ensure it doesn’t go rogue? These will be new, exciting and rewarding roles in the bright new era. AI might just be the greatest job creation engine the world has ever seen. So, let’s embrace this bold new world!

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