Creative disruption: Can AI create more jobs than it threatens?

By 2020, artificial intelligence (AI) will create more jobs than it eradicates, according to Gartner. Much is at stake here for business – the success of AI is as dependent on the workplace culture to change to capitalize on its enormous capabilities.

According to research by the World Economic Forum (WEF), robots and machines will carry out more tasks than humans by 2025 – but we will see 58 million net new jobs created. But the WEF warns that there are some urgent challenges for enterprises to address in terms of reskilling, mobile working and creating safety nets to protect at-risk workers and communities where jobs may be severely displaced.

“It is critical that businesses take an active role in supporting existing workforces through reskilling and upskilling, individuals take a proactive approach to their lifelong learning, and governments create an enabling environment to facilitate this workforce transformation. This is the key challenge for our time,” explains Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the WEF.

A challenge in filling the skills gap

While the WEF expects to see a net positive job growth from now through 2022, it flags the fact that there will be major shifts in the quality, location, format and permanency of new job roles. It expects to see, for example, a rise in the use of contractors and flexible working.

This is backed by Gartner, which sees 2020 as a turning point where AI will start to create more jobs than it is destroying. The analyst firm cites the example of Stitch Fix, an online stylist service, which uses data and AI to deliver personalized fashion choices to customers. Customers fill in a profile and are assigned a personal stylist. The stylist acts as a check for the AI, making sure it doesn’t deviate too far off the customer’s requirements. Contributions made by the human stylists make the AI algorithms more accurate, according to the company.

The WEF forecasts a sharp increase in demand across all industries for data analysts and scientists, along with software and application developers. In addition, soft skills, which refer to the interpersonal characteristics a person uses to interact with others, will be essential. These include problem solving, negotiation and conflict resolution. This comes as no surprise, as an AI application may be able to analyze, respond and predict based on data it is fed – but it has yet to demonstrate that it can show genuine care and empathy.

AI, however, is set to erase any number of routine, task-based roles in white and blue collar sectors, including data entry and account administrators, assembly line work and truck driving. But despite most occupations being affected by automation, only about 5% of occupations could be fully automated with current technologies, according to McKinsey. Which means more workers will be working alongside machines, making partial automation more prevalent. AI that can read diagnostic scans with a high degree of accuracy will help medical professionals in drawing up treatment plans and so forth.

Some industries will be disrupted by AI far more than others. Recent research by KPMG, for example, forecasts that in the next five years, as many as one in five jobs in the financial services sector will go due to automation and AI. Areas such as claims processing and policy insurance are all viable areas for the use of AI.

Preparing for the changing workplace

It is crucial that business leaders start preparing and have a strategy for employees to work alongside AI in the workplace to optimize its benefits.

Deployed correctly, the hybrid AI-human workplace can make enterprises more productive and agile, allowing them to pursue new opportunities that would have been impossible in a traditional scenario. BWM, for example, maintains that its human/robot teams are 85% more productive than traditional assembly lines.

The challenge is in the change itself. Business leaders will need to help their workforce transform not only in terms of skills, but also in cultural behavior and mindset. At the same time, they will need the capabilities to proficiently adopt these technologies.

“Organizations must also consider how they are going to restructure their people as part of this transition. This means working out what skills will be required and where upskilling can play its part in a flexible, mobile and engaged workforce that will be working alongside machines and AI,” explains Paz Fonteboa, Regional Head of HR Europe, Orange Business.

“At the same time, HR leaders need to work closely with business to anticipate future workplace requirements and understand exactly what IT skills will be needed to support this transformation and make sure it aligns with future workplace structures,” adds Fonteboa, who has recently written about the challenges of automation on HR.

Becoming an AI-fueled organization

AI is here to stay. As it becomes more ubiquitous across industries, re-structuring to become what Deloitte calls an “AI-fueled” enterprise will be central to a business flourishing in a 24/7 digital economy. An AI-fueled enterprise is one that puts “AI, ML and other cognitive technologies at the very center of business and IT operations.”

Becoming an AI-fueled enterprise involves a significant mind shift – stepping out of comfort zones and taking an innovative look at how machines and humans can work together. AI -fueled enterprises, by their very nature, work in unorthodox ways. It isn’t just about upskilling and reskilling – it is about a complete cultural change. One that business leaders will need to instill in their workforce going forward.

Read our essential guides to AI: Everything you always wanted to know about AI, Why AI needs good data, The secret life of algorithms and From supercomputers to smartphones.

Jan Howells

Jan has been writing about technology for over 22 years for magazines and web sites, including ComputerActive, IQ magazine and Signum. She has been a business correspondent on ComputerWorld in Sydney and covered the channel for Ziff-Davis in New York.