How Will Machines and AI Change the Future of Work?

03 January, 2018

Several recent studies examined how machine automation and artificial intelligence (AI) will change the future of work.

Some estimates predict these technologies could displace up to 30 percent of workers worldwide by 2030.

One study was published by PricewaterhouseCoopers, an international company providing financial and tax services. It predicted about 38 percent of American jobs could be at high risk for automation by the early 2030s. In Germany, up to 35 percent of jobs could be at risk. The company said about 30 percent could be affected in Britain and 21 percent in Japan.

The risk of being displaced will greatly increase for workers with less education, PricewaterhouseCoopers said. It estimated that in Britain, up to 46 percent of workers without a college degree could be at risk due to automation. This would drop to about 12 percent for workers with undergraduate degrees or higher.

"New smart machines have the potential to replace our minds and to move around freely in the world," the study said. It added that the greatest job displacement is expected to come in the areas of transportation, storage, manufacturing and retail.

The Rand Corporation recently issued its own report on the future effects of automation and AI on jobs and the workplace. Osonde Osoba was a co-author of the report. He noted that fears over machines taking jobs from humans goes back centuries.

In 16th century England, Queen Elizabeth famously refused an inventor's request for a patent for a device to make material for clothing. The Queen explained that the device would lead to major job losses, forcing affected workers to become "beggars."

Osoba agrees there will be major job disruptions due to AI and automation, especially for lower skilled workers. But he told VOA he believes the future problems have been overestimated without historical evidence to back up the predictions.

"It's not so much that the jobs are getting displaced, it's more like tasks are getting displaced and jobs are reconfiguring over time to account for that automation."

He added that it will be very difficult for companies to completely automate most jobs, because they require a worker to perform many different duties and to react to unexpected situations.

The RAND report identifies three job types that will be very difficult to replace with a machine. These include jobs depending on human motor skills, positions requiring creative thinking and actions, and jobs dealing with intense social interaction.

There are recent examples of companies like Google and Facebook using AI to limit certain kinds of content. Osoba says this can be problematic for machines, which do not understand cultural norms in the population.

"So that understanding of cultural norms, or social norms or ethical norms, that's not something that's easy – at least so far we haven't found that easy to program into artificial intelligence."

The McKinsey Global Institute, a private think tank, has also studied the issue. Its research suggests that up to one-third of work activities across 46 nations could be displaced by 2030. The organization's report predicts automation could force 75 million to 375 million workers into new job areas by 2030.

McKinsey identified several jobs that will not be easily replaceable by machines. These include health-care providers, engineers, scientists, accountants, technology experts and managers. It also predicted rising demand for educators, and "creatives," a group of workers including artists, performers and entertainers.

In this Thursday, May 25, 2017 photo, an assembly line laborer works across from a collaborative robot, right, at the Stihl Inc. manufacturing facility in Virginia Beach, Va. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
In this Thursday, May 25, 2017 photo, an assembly line laborer works across from a collaborative robot, right, at the Stihl Inc. manufacturing facility in Virginia Beach, Va. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The study said automation will also raise productivity and economic growth. It said this growth – along with other economic influences - could help offset the displacement of millions of workers.

"All workers will need to adapt, as their occupations evolve alongside increasingly capable machines," the report said.

McKinsey says this will require ongoing retraining of workers. In addition, employees will be spending more time on activities difficult to automate. This includes tasks requiring emotional, creative and cognitive skills, the study said.

Rand Corporation's Osonde Osoba agrees. He says workers will increasingly have to be willing and prepared to regularly change jobs and roles to keep up with technology.

"If you are thinking about concrete things an individual might do to prepare themselves, I guess being more adaptable, being more flexible, being able to reeducate yourself to fit into a different job."

He added that there will be a great need in the future for many more AI developers and researchers. For this reason, he suggests young people interested in these areas start their career paths early to prepare for these high-paying, competitive jobs.

I'm Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn reported this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

displace v. force people to move from one place, job, etc. to another

retail n. the activity of selling products to the public

patent n. official document giving a person or company the right to be the only one that makes or sells a product for a certain period of time

beggar n. person who lives by asking people to give them money, food, etc.

disruption n. causing something to be unable to continue in the normal way

reconfigure v. change the way something is arranged or prepared

filter v. remove something unwanted

ethical adj. involving questions of right and wrong behavior

evolve v. to develop or make something develop over time

cognitive adj. of, relating to, or involving conscious mental activities

concrete adj. of or related to a real thing, people or actions

flexible adj. able to easily change or adapt to a situation