How AI will affect jobs in the new digital economy

A study released at this year’s World Economic Forum predicts new technologies will eliminate five million jobs globally by 2020. One question IT workers should be asking now is whether their own jobs are at risk and, if so, what they can do about it.

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As a tech reporter, the stories I cover don’t wade into the pool of existential thought very often. Okay, like, ever.

A lot of times, my job simply involves writing about what technology can do for us. Leave it to Stephen Hawking to ask what technology can do to us.

Hawking may not actually have a Theory of Everything. But he’s been theorizing publicly about what artificial intelligence (AI) could do to the human race.

Last year Hawking was one of several big names (Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak) who signed an extraordinary open letter warning that “it is important to research how to reap (AI’s) benefits while avoiding potential pitfalls.”

Although those ‘potential pitfalls’ weren’t spelled out in the letter, Hawking elaborated on his concern just a few weeks ago, saying AI will be “either the best or worst thing ever to happen to humanity.” Musk voiced similar fears last month, calling AI “our biggest existential threat.”

Academic geniuses and superstar entrepreneurs aren’t the only ones pondering AI’s downside. At the last two tech events I covered, audience members stood up to ask the assembled experts if AI will eliminate millions of jobs around the world.

Both audience members also asked if disenchanted voters — people who’ve lost their jobs to the new digital economy and others who fear they’ll be next — led to the Trump and Brexit result shockers.

To their credit, none of the guest speakers responded by glossing over those concerns.

“Because of digital transformation and AI, we’re going to see dramatic changes in the way people work … very similar to what happened with the industrial revolution,” Dave Schubmehl, IDC’s research director of cognitive systems, replied to one of the audience members.

“There will be individual jobs that are not coming back. We have to figure out what [are] the next sort of jobs people can do,” he said.

“Hoping the disruption is not going to come and that we can hold it off is a foolhardy proposition,” responded Deloitte Canada CIO Terry Stuart to another audience member.

A study released at this year’s World Economic Forum predicts new technologies will eliminate five million jobs globally by 2020. (That’s just over three years away.) The same report says Old Economy jobs in office admin, healthcare and financial services are most vulnerable.

What about IT jobs? Isn’t anyone asking how AI will affect employment in the new digital economy?

I haven’t found any large-scale formal research on that yet. (If you know of any, please do send it my way.) According to Nasscom, an association for the IT industry in India, about five to 10 per cent of existing IT jobs in that country will be lost to AI and automation over the next decade.

Stuart Sumner also took a stab at the subject for V3, predicting the five tech jobs most vulnerable to extinction in the automated AI era: tech support, system admin, web design, non-dev ops development (don’t resist the dev ops culture, Sumner advises) and IT project/program management. It’s not based on any research or surveys, but still food for thought.

Panic over emerging technology is nothing new, of course. When the first cars hit the road, British philosopher C.E.M. Joad wrote in 1927 that “motoring is one of the most contemptible, soul-destroying and devitalizing pursuits that the ill-fortune of misguided humanity has ever imposed upon its credulity.”

Yet here we are, nearly a century later, contemplating how to accommodate and regulate self-driving cars. AI, like that newfangled automobile of 1927, isn’t going away, people.

One question IT managers and workers should be asking now is whether their own jobs are at risk under AI and automation. If so, what can they do to secure their futures?

At a CIO conference a few months back, I heard one tech exec tell another that now is a great time to be in IT because it’s the only department safe from staff or budget cuts.

For how long, though? As Deloitte’s Stuart put it: “The jobs are going away. If you don’t disrupt yourself, somebody else will disrupt you.”

Image: iStock

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