Artificial intelligence was once an obscure concept of science fiction, but now millions of people across several industries are worried that robots could put them out of work. Compelo reporter James Walker was at London Tech Week's AI Summit to get a feel for where the technology is heading
Artificial intelligence is often talked about as the stuff of science fiction, but for all too many people it presents a very real threat to their job security.
A study by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released this year said that roughly 66 million jobs across its 35 member countries - including many of the world’s strongest economies - were “highly automatable”.
It added that workers in jobs that could be massively changed or taken by AI technology rarely got opportunities to retrain or go into adult education and were short on time to take up such chances.
While the study rejected estimates from an Oxford University paper, which claimed that 47% of US workers were at risk, it did suggest governments would need to shake-up their approaches to adult learning in the AI era.
Government figures appear to be taking concerns about job losses on board as discussions about AI have entered the zeitgeist.
Speaking at the AI Summit at London Tech Week 2018, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Matthew Hancock said: “There is an understandable concern about the impact of technology on jobs.
“The risk it seems to me is not that we adopt new technology that destroys jobs – because that’s going to happen whether we like it or not - the real risk to jobs comes from not adopting new technologies.”
He added that putting coding on the compulsory national curriculum and an industry-funded masters degree could be solutions to employment problems thrown up by AI.
As part of the G7 Summit that culminated last week, innovation and employment ministers from seven of the world’s biggest economies also nodded at a commitment to investment in adult education.
In a statement, the group said: “Realising the broad potential of AI technologies will require thoughtful investments in entrepreneurialism, education and the labour market to promote relevant skills and knowledge to participate in jobs of the future – and to adapt to changes in demand for skills.”
‘Not enough jobs are being lost to AI’
Despite the warnings from organisations and academic, the approach of industry to AI-related job losses and changes seems relaxed to say the least.
Speaking at the big employment debate on the first day of the AI Summit at the ExCeL in London, Dow Jones chief product and technology officer Clancy Childs said: “There will be a lot of jobs lost. This might be controversial but we’re actually not losing enough jobs to AI right now.”
He later added: “Some jobs will cease to exist, and they will hopefully be the ones that are the least productive overall.”
When asked whether they believed AI technology would be a net positive or a net negative for the jobs market, the general feeling among panelists was that more jobs would be lost than gained, at least in the short-term.
“It depends on the time perspective you’re taking about and how well AI is managed,” said Patrice Slupowksi, senior vice president for digital innovation at the telecoms giant Orange. “It will be neutral if it is managed well.”
The debate chaired by CNN technology and business correspondent Samuel Burke also touched on how the nature of work could change in response to new AI technologies.
Jeff Adams, chief executive of speech and language software firm Cobalt, said: “It’s going to transform jobs and make people’s jobs feel a little less rote and mundane.
“They will still work the eight hours, but it will allow them to do more interesting things - you will find more things for people to do.”
Speaking of a more distant future, head of financial services artificial intelligence PwC Aldous Birchall added: “High-value jobs will be taken and will change. An analyst will be able to look at 100 companies a year instead of 10.”
Education and opportunities
There was a general support on the panel for improved IT education at schools through schemes that would add computing subjects to compulsory curriculums, as suggested by Mr Hancock.
“I would love to see data literacy classes in primary schools and secondary schools,” said Ryan de Rooijen, head of data at the technology firm Dyson.
Discussing what people should tell their children to study in the coming AI era, there was more disagreement.
Mr Birchall said: “I wouldn’t necessarily tell my children to go and learn Python, but I would tell them to learn maths.”
Other panelists were unconvinced that workers left out of employment by AI would make a move into the field.
“It’s wrong for us to think new jobs will be in AI. When cotton gins displaced workers, they didn’t go into the production of cotton gins,” said Cobalt’s Mr Adams.
“It’s a fundamentally hard problem to tell our children what to learn in the AI world. It’s probably important to tell them to study broadly.”
Mr Childs, of Dow Jones, added: “From a long-term perspective, everything will be affected but how do you tell everybody, let’s say bank tellers who lost their jobs, to go into building ATM machines.”
‘Doom and Gloom’
Whatever the threats to job and however numerous, companies across the world are embracing AI technologies.
One such company is the US-based cloud computing and IT solutions firm Cloudeeva, Inc.
According to chief executive Adesh Tyagi, Cloudeeva is looking at using AI technologies in the hiring process.
He told Compelo: “Certain types of candidates who are looking for jobs, it’s easy to find them.
“We call them active candidates. But there are passive candidates who are not looking to change the job, but they may be fit for something very exciting for them.
“What AI tools allow us to do is reach out to those passive candidates without wasting too much human time.”
Mr Tyagi said AI technology would free workers from dangerous, unfulfilling and mundane tasks.
Asked what he meant by menial jobs and tasks, he said: “Different industries know jobs such as in banking and insurance where you have a claim processor filling in a similar claim or the same information again and again, and that could be automated.
“I never say they would replace them, it would just have those claim processors spend time looking at adjusting the claim versus filling out the claim, so that time is saved.”
Mr Tyagi takes a tough view of those sceptical of AI who he believes are part of a “doom-and-gloom crowd”.
“People who are against AI are the ones who don’t really understand the meaning of it in terms of application,” he said.
“People think it’s just machines that are going to take over human jobs. Which is where I feel they don’t like it, that it’s just going to replace human beings in terms of doing certain types of jobs.
“They don’t see the benefits and how it can extend.”