Everyday, we wake up to new opinions and news concerning the impact of AI and how the taking over of different organisations’ tasks by robotics will affect our economy on the whole and, more particularly, the labour market. These ideas are usually split into two main trends. On the one hand, the prophets of doom who predict the loss of millions of jobs due to task automation and robotics. And, on the other hand, the ultra optimists who want to have us believe that this will lead to a massive amount of great added value jobs that will not only mitigate the losses, but also result in a positive net outcome. And, as with most of these cases, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
For more than 250 years, technological advances have been the main drivers of economic growth. Among the most important advances, those that economists usually call general purpose technologies, were concepts such as the combustion engine, electricity or electronic mail, which resulted in additional opportunities and innovations. Experts seem to agree that Artificial Intelligence is the general-purpose technology of our era. However, economists also classify technologies into two types, “enabling” and “replacement” technologies, i.e., technologies that make our jobs easier, allowing us to become more productive and those that are led to replace manual tasks. This difference does not lie within the technology itself, but rather in how it is applied or used. We may not only use Artificial Intelligence to provide Robots with further intelligence and replace workers in a production line, but also to develop customised learning systems that will enable an increasing number of teachers to adapt their training to match each student’s needs. But this is not a new idea.
My father, brother, grandfather and great grandfather were all postal workers. With the arrival of Internet and email, both my brother’s and my father’s jobs changed radically. Since they worked in different roles, and due to their age, the consequences were very different for each of them and, to cut a long story short, I will base my story in my father’s case. After more than 30 years working as rural mail carrier, and almost overnight, he became the manager of a bank branch. Although this is perhaps one of the extreme cases, I believe it is a good example of what lies ahead. Firstly, due to a reduction in physical mail, the company decided to centralise their operations into smaller offices that comprised several urban areas. So probably due to his experience, but above all, due to his own merits (I know, I am biased), my father became the branch manager. However, this was not enough, because the company was now in need of new sources of income. For that reason, and also because there was a foreign financial entity who wanted to break into Spain and use their branches to boost their expansion, my father was required to move forward again and become involved in the banking industry. Many would say that the electronic mail was an enabling technology, and although this was clearly the case for most roles, it was a replacement technology for other jobs. As a matter of fact, and as you can imagine, my father’s productivity as a new bank branch manager, and that of his colleagues within the company, was rather lacking. However, this notion of productivity within the changes introduced by technological advances should be the subject of another article. In spite of this, he was forced to evolve in his daily duties in order to remain employable.
Will the impact of Artificial Intelligence be the same or higher than that seen with other technological disruptions?
From my personal point of view, the economic impact will be similar in terms of magnitude. However, I believe that the social impact will be much higher. Making applications or machines think and learn for themselves poses certain ethical challenges that we never confronted with before. However, if we focus on the economic side alone, as previously mentioned, it will be no different from in other eras. From a labour market’s point of view, technological advances usually hit the “middle classes” harder. Moreover, by this I mean those that have a specific benefit role that can potentially be automated, and provided that this automation is worthwhile in terms of profitability. These jobs will be the first to be forced to evolve or disappear, as it happened to my father. However, this does not mean that the other two extremes will remain unaffected, because those that do “survive” will be forced to live alongside those technologies.
Today, we face the dilemma that organisations are not capable of making the most of Artificial Intelligence because they do not have qualified staff to do so, while on the other hand, there are no policies aimed at promoting training in those areas. Now is the time to get going. Change is on its way, and we must be prepared for it. So the sooner, the better, in order to make the most of all opportunities that we may come across. If you want my advice, don’t be afraid to experiment and try and learn fast