by Bruce Wang
BEIJING – Few subjects generate as much heated debate as that of automation, and the impact it will have on our workforce in the coming years. At a recent panel, I was joined by Rhea See, the co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of She Loves Tech, Tyler Dimicco, the head of International PMO of ByteDance, and Alan Chan, Business Engagement Specialist at the World Economic Forum, to discuss the issue.
Among the topics covered over the course of the discussion, one that the panel came back to again and again was the issue of when to automate. What should companies looking to automate at least some of their job functions think about when deciding whether or not to go through with it? How do you balance the potential revenue growth that AI will facilitate while also recognizing the possibility of large-scale job losses down the road?
As I see it, there are two reasons that companies are embracing AI: the rise in labor costs, and the shortage of workers who are willing to do certain low-level, low skill jobs. By utilizing the latest AI innovations and technologies, such as robots, companies can achieve a myriad of benefits: better service, improved productivity, and potentially even higher revenues and profit. Those worried about their jobs can take heart: the number of robots currently in use is still a small fraction of the overall size of the labor force (for now). We still have a lot of time, perhaps twenty years or more, before that becomes a major issue.
Moreover, the types of tasks that are currently being automated are largely monotonous and repetitive, and require relatively little skill to carry out. For example, Cheetah Mobile’s GreetBot, a robot receptionist, checks people in using facial recognition, and shows them to where they need to go. This doesn’t completely eliminate the need for a human receptionist, and it gives the person time to work on the more complex duties of their job – such as managing people’s schedules and answering inquiries.
As it is, many people dislike having to do low-paying, dangerous, and repetitive work – exactly the type of labor that robots can be used to carry out. It’s not that people are losing job opportunities; in fact, they’re gaining the ability to spend less time on the boring work, and the chance to focus on the creative and innovative aspect of their profession. Handing off certain responsibilities to robots could also allow people to spend less time in the office, and more time living their lives outside of work.
But, as was also pointed out during the panel discussion, there needs to be a roadmap in place to prepare both workers and their companies for the change to come. This will require both changing how companies are themselves structured, as well as our general societal conception of what work is.
We have to think about what types of tasks can (and should) be automated, and the additional career opportunities we can offer those who might find themselves displaced. As most repetitive tasks are given over to robots and automation, job roles will shift to encompass more creative fields, such as science and art.
This also means educating your workforce, both present and future, to give them the skills they need to thrive in this new environment. From a governmental standpoint, this could take the form of retraining programs available to anybody whose job is at risk of displacement. Or it could simply be a matter of increasing access to and the affordability of higher education, thus giving a larger pool of people the opportunity to learn advanced skills, such as a second language or the ability to use or develop AI.
As has often been emphasized, artificial intelligence and robotics is not yet at an advanced enough stage to mimic certain human abilities, such as creative thinking. Deep learning today, has the ability to replicate many of our intuition capabilities, such as voice and facial recognition. However, we are yet to develop an AGI (artificial general intelligence) that is capable of understanding concepts or abstract logic, or attaining consciousness.
In other words, it is not possible for robots to take our jobs at this stage because they are not capable of the feats of imagination that bring value and drive growth. For now, only humans are capable of that – and with the aid of automation, they’re free to focus on those creative endeavors that will continue to move society forward.