Research suggests the future for jobs in an AI world is less grim than many expect

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As a business owner or manager, it is easy to be excited by the future Artificial Intelligence (AI) offers. It’s likely to both increase your understanding of your business environment and of your customers, while at the same time it is likely to reduce costs by reducing headcount for many non-cognitive roles.

But, for workers the future looks grim.

Whether it’s Amazon’s checkout-less stores, autonomous vehicles on the road, at the mining site and elsewhere, or just AI replacing the more mundane tasks around the office or in the factory, it seems a big swathe of workers are going to lose their jobs in the decades ahead.

Indeed earlier this year Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, said this disruption of what he called the 4th Industrial Revolution means it might be decades before jobs and wages growth flow to workers.

That’s something Andrew Scott, professor of Economics at London Business School acknowledges, but he has a far more optimistic outlook than the one Carney’s “decades” implies.

Scott notes that while “there are aspects of the advance of AI and robotics that provoke concern” and “some argue that technology is so powerful that it is more than a match for humans mentally as well as physically: all jobs are under threat” the outlook is less grim.

“This is exactly what was said at times of technological disruption in the past, and yet new jobs – jobs no-one dreamt of at the time – were created. There are some areas where human beings will always have a comparative advantage over computers, no matter how powerful those computers are. Don’t write off the human race just yet,” he says.

And while Scott refers to the very history Carney references he’s upbeat.

“Advances in technology haven’t created mass unemployment. Most of us have a job. No, we’re not doing the same as we would have been doing before James Watt came up with his steam engine or Thomas Edison devised a long-lasting light bulb. Both were technological breakthroughs. Both helped increase productivity. But neither condemned workers to a life of enforced idleness. History suggests that as some jobs disappear, others will be created. We just don’t know what they will be” he wrote.

Easy for an academic to say. It’s this very uncertainty where the unease about the future of work for workers lies.

But there is genuine cause for hope that for developed countries like the UK, and perhaps Australia, the coming of AI will at least be neutral in terms of jobs while in developing nations like China it could be a boon for employment.

Modelling by PwC’s UK chief economist John Hawksworth shows a “broadly neutral net impact of AI and related technologies on jobs in the UK”. PWC’s analysis suggested that while “these technologies could displace around 20% of existing UK jobs by 2037” they would likely also “create a similar number of additional jobs by boosting economic growth”.

Importantly for nations like Australia PWC said it “judges that results for the UK are likely to be broadly similar to the average across OECD countries”.

While Hawksworth’s global model gives developed economy workers it has generated some remarkable results for China. “He admitted being surprised by the results it has been returning, including a base case that new industry has the potential to add more than 20 per cent to China’s GDP over the coming two decades, if the policy settings are right in areas like competition policy, education and healthcare”.

Of course, the fact that jobs will be destroyed and new ones created throws up its own challenges of retraining for workers and for the continuous education systems necessary to do this. But at the very least if Hawksworth’s research is right then the AI supported future for workers is a lot less grim than many expect.

Read more in The Connected World Report.

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