Tom faces an uncertain future as a skilled assembly line worker in a small manufacturing plant. He has been a dedicated employee for over a decade and is known for his meticulous attention to detail and expertise in assembling complex components. However, the promise of improved efficiency and reduced costs will soon convince management to consider an AI-powered robotic assembly system.
The decision to implement an AI-powered system almost makes itself. The AI system can perform the same tasks as human employees but at a faster pace and with a higher degree of accuracy.
Because the systems can communicate with other “smart” systems throughout the manufacturing process, both internal and external, the AI system can process vast amounts of information faster and make more informed manufacturing decisions than any human brain or human processes. Although an AI system requires maintenance, upgrades, and on-staff AI systems expertise, it does not require an ongoing salary, employment benefits, or the other employment “inefficiencies” of the human workforce it will replace.
Streamlined AI operations will allow the company to keep pace with supply and demand throughout its supply chain and distribution systems and remain competitive in the marketplace as other manufacturers adopt AI systems. Despite Tom’s skills, experience, and loyalty to the company, he will eventually lose his job and face the daunting task of searching for a new position in an increasingly automated world.
The Big Tradeoff
Tom’s story highlights the challenges many individuals will soon face in a rapidly evolving AI-powered workplace. It also highlights the inevitable effect of technology on human workers.
We could have told this story in the 1800s and replaced the term “artificial intelligence” with “sewing machines,” or “assembly line” in the early 1900s, “automated household appliances” in the 1950s, “robotic manufacturing” in the 1980s, or “electronic newspapers and magazines” in the early 2000s. Technologies continuously change, but the stories of their impact on the human workforce remain eerily the same.
AI has made impressive strides in recent years, particularly in tasks such as data analysis, pattern recognition, and cognitive automation. We all understand by now that AI can assist in streamlining workflows, improving efficiency, and enhancing decision-making processes. But it’s not perfect.
While AI excels in handling repetitive and data-driven tasks, it currently lacks certain human qualities like creativity, emotional intelligence, and complex problem-solving capabilities. In Tom’s case, he was easily replaced by AI because his job involved parts assembly, which is a repeating pattern that can be easily automated.
Given the dwindling advantages that we humans still have over machines, people who are doing something that can be easily automated are perhaps doing a job that a human shouldn’t be doing in the first place. I believe that the automation of certain jobs, which may lead to human displacement, can be beneficial if we can improve the lives of those affected.
Unfortunately, most soon-to-be displaced workers won’t initially see the potential benefits. Indulge me, please.
Also see: 100+ Top AI Companies
Our New Roles With “Robot Overlords”
Despite significant advancements, AI still struggles with complex tasks that require human intuition, common sense, and contextual understanding.
For example, AI is limited in its ability to handle unstructured data (beyond just finding simple patterns), adapt to new or changing environments, and/or handle dynamic social interactions. These limitations make the complete replacement of humans in many job roles unlikely, especially jobs that involve creativity, critical thinking, and empathy.
We need to focus on our strengths as humans and find ways to collaborate with AI to increase the value we bring to our companies. And, even add value to our own lives.
Tom, for instance, found that his ability to understand the interworking of the factory meant that he could transfer to a new job setting up and monitoring the very systems that displaced him. Normally, this new job involves a much higher salary with a digestible amount of training to operate the new systems. Tom’s greatest advantage is the amount of knowledge he has about how the system should and should not operate, a skill that would take a new hire much longer to acquire than it would for Tom to learn how to operate his portion of the AI interface.
The outcome of all this AI stuff is simple: Instead of replacing human workers, AI is more likely to augment their capabilities.
AI systems can help humans by automating repetitive tasks, analyzing vast amounts of data, and providing valuable insights that can be instantly operationalized. This augmentation can free up human workers’ time to focus on more complex and strategic aspects of their work.
In Tom’s case, an AI system can help him design and deploy the AI-enabled factory equipment, but not do the entire tasks. Tom will need to make many calls that are more nuanced.
Also see: Top Generative AI Apps and Tools
A New Job Market?
Many of my readers won’t remember a time when PCs were touted as the great business time savers that would eliminate most meetings, virtually all business conducted on paper, and many workers. Many office workers in the early 1980s, from secretaries to top management, were convinced their jobs would be eliminated or transformed beyond their recognition.
Remember, this was the dawn of the Microcomputer Revolution. There were no electronic spreadsheets, word processors, email, database programs like Salesforce.com, or online calendars of any sort for widespread business use. It was a time before cell phones or ‘apps.’
By the 1990s, most large businesses depended on PCs. In hindsight, PCs created much more work and many more jobs than they eliminated. Soon, every department had specialized ‘PC tools’ that allowed employees to do their jobs better and/or faster.
For the business world, I believe the AI Revolution will follow a trajectory comparable to the Microcomputer Revolution, with comparable challenges and impressive achievements.
While some jobs may be automated or transformed by AI, new job opportunities will emerge. As tasks that can be automated are eliminated, as in the case of Tom, new roles will emerge to design, develop, and maintain AI systems, as well as to apply AI technologies in various industries.
Indeed, this shift can easily be modeled as a one-to-one replacement, meaning that for every job where AI displaces a human, we can easily create a new job, that’s able to pay more, and provide more job satisfaction. For the most part we’re not happy doing repetitive tasks. Ask anyone that worked at an assembly line in the 1970s. There is a reason that we found soda bottles in the doors of cars produced, or that many of those types of jobs lead to depression and burn out quickly.
Thus, what we’ll likely see is the emergence of a new job market, focused on these types of jobs that work a layer above AI. It will cause some pain to transition, but it’s encouraging to see that many companies are focusing on retraining instead of displacement, understanding that it’s very costly to hire back good employees.
Chances are that many of those in these types of jobs that can be replaced by AI won’t see that coming, and are going to be disrupted, and have all the negative things that goes along with that. Thus, the focus is on ethics, and the core duty by management that every person is a resource that can’t be replicated by a machine, and thus needs to be treated with the same importance.
The market will eventually normalize, and we’ll find that this was altogether a positive change that benefited most people who are affected by it. Also, we benefit in the new productivity that can be achieved, and the benefit that that affect will have on the economy. I see a win/win, but we’ll have to see what’s occurs in the next 3-5 years.