From worker to robot? Artificial intelligence and future proofing jobs

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By Professor John Bryson, Professor of Enterprise and Economic Geography
Department of Strategy and International Business, University of Birmingham

For AI, it is worth noting that its impacts will be experienced across the entire labour market, transforming both high and low paid employment.

There have been many claims about the impact that artificial intelligence (AI) has on the transformation of work and labour markets. Recently, for example, the Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, warned that AI and machines have the potential to make many jobs obsolete.

It is worth placing AI in context. Between a quarter and a third of jobs and occupations that exist today did not exist thirty years ago. Many occupations have been rendered obsolete as the digital economy replaced the analogue economy and as the internet transformed both the world of work and everyday living. New technology is both a job destroyer and a job creator (Bryson, 2018), this has always been the case.

The application of AI to employment only reflects the most recent reworking of the relationship between an evolving division of labour and technology. This includes the offshoring and reshoring of manufacturing and service tasks to low-cost production locations, as well as the replacement of workers with machines. For AI, it is worth noting that its impacts will be experienced across the entire labour market, transforming both high and low paid employment.

The key question is ‘how is it possible to future proof jobs or careers?’ On the one hand, it is impossible to future proof jobs by protecting them from the application of new technology. Companies will always be searching for new ways to enhance productivity and competitiveness. Thus, the application of AI to the world of work will transform, destroy and replace tasks and occupations.

On the other hand, it is possible to future proof careers. For the foreseeable future, there are some activities that will be impossible to replace with AI. To protect themselves from some of the more negative consequences of AI, individuals can focus on jobs that include tasks that cannot be standardised:

  • Tasks with high levels of unpredictability/flexibility
  • Those based on emotions and require sophisticated social skills including persuasion, empathy and negotiation
  • Occupations that are based around creativity including artistic and intellectual capabilities
  • Programming and maintaining digital systems
  • Work that is based on an individual’s reputation

Occupations that are likely to be replaced by AI and robotics includes those that involve routine or predictable activities that are relatively easy to replace with computer code and machine learning.

The political and media debate that is emerging around AI highlights all the negatives and very few of the positives. Therefore, it is worth remembering that the initial application of AI to the workplace led to the internet, smartphones and ecommerce. The combination of these technologies has transformed retailing, the high street and consumption. It has destroyed jobs but created a host of new forms of employment.

At the eye of this technological hurricane – a place of relative calm in the labour market – will be jobs that require sophisticated social skills combined with an ability to play with technology. As always, the education system has a central role to play. Therefore, from primary schools to universities, pupils and students must be provided with the skills needed to survive in this new world of work.

Bryson, J.R. (2018), ‘Divisions of Labour, Technology and the Transformation of Work: Worker to Robot or Self-Employment and the Gig Economy’, in Paasi, A., Harrison, J. and Jones, M. (eds.), Handbook on the Geographies of Regions and Territories, Edward Elgar: Cheltenham: 141-152

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