Walmart's announcement last month that it's deploying thousands of robot "smart assistants" ignited fresh employment fears about the effect of artificial intelligence and automation on the American workforce. According to the largest U.S. employer, by February of next year Walmart expects to install autonomous floor scrubbers in nearly 2,000 stores, in addition to a smaller number of robots that scan inventory.
Widespread corporate investments in A.I. and automation have employees in many industries wondering, Will my job be the next to go? Here are two reasons that's not likely.
First, jobs will not disappear; instead, they'll evolve into more customer-focused positions. "Our associates immediately understood the opportunity for the new technology to free them up from focusing on tasks that are repeatable, predictable, and manual," says Walmart's senior vice president of central operations. "It allows them time to focus more on selling merchandise and serving customers, which they tell us have always been the most exciting parts of working in retail."
A.I. technologies are already being used successfully in the sales world. The typical sales representative has classically spent much more time researching clients than actually closing deals. Now, A.I. is supporting representatives, helping them know where to focus their time to meet their quotas. Algorithms compile historical client information, along with social media posts and customer interaction history, to rank leads in the pipeline according to their chances of being closed successfully, and therefore help sales teams increase their revenue. The more deals sales reps close, the more secure their jobs become.
This leads us to the second reason not to panic over A.I.'s effect on the nature of work: A.I. and machine learning are good for the bottom line, and history shows that might improve job security in the workforce. Remember the first ATMs? Bank tellers everywhere prepared for the worst. But by minimizing operating costs, ATMs actually empowered banks to open more branches, which roughly doubled the employment of bank tellers from 300,000 to 600,000 between 1970 and 2010. Similarly, employees also feared a loss of jobs when computers became commonplace in the standard office environment. Now, most folks work hand-in-hand with digital technologies comfortably and productively.
Information and communication, manufacturing, and financial services will top the list of industries to gain economic growth as a result of A.I., thanks to a reduction in human error that tends to be found in routine and repetitive tasks, including basic financial reports and inquiries, according to a report from Accenture.
All of this said, employee anxieties over A.I. are real and cannot be ignored. Corporations should get a headstart on winning trust within their ranks through open communication about how the implementation of A.I. and automation will affect their workforces. Augmenting employees' skills will also prove critical. For example, Pfizer is working with Concerto HealthAI to help refine (as opposed to replace) researchers' study designs so that trials can be completed more quickly.
Perhaps the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen said it best: "The promise of artificial intelligence and computer science generally vastly outweighs the impact it could have on some jobs. In the same way that while the invention of the airplane negatively affected the railroad industry, it opened a much wider door to human progress."
Perhaps what's causing the most disruption within our society right now isn't A.I., but our collective fear of the unknown? By embracing the endless possibilities A.I. has to offer, we just might find that what emerge are careers that, though altered in scope and nature, are more secure and personally fulfilling than ever before.
Munir Mandviwalla is an associate professor and the executive director of the Institute for Business and Information Technology at Temple University. Niraj Patel is the managing director of artificial intelligence at DMI.
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