The future of the workforce is one of the biggest issues facing CEOs today. It’s abundantly clear to all that artificial intelligence, big data analytics, and advanced robotics make it possible for machines to take on tasks that once required a person to do them. How should companies prepare, strategically, to thrive in this world?
Views on what to expect vary dramatically. By some accounts, almost half of all jobs in the U.S. economy could be made obsolete. Others have described how intelligent machines will actually create jobs — including entirely new categories of jobs. Some people even talk about a world of superabundance where work will be about pursuing your passion, on your own terms.
So, there’s a great deal at stake in the debate over productivity and jobs. Leaders must understand the debate and be prepared to address tough questions: What kind of new skills do we need? How should we be organized? How do we define jobs? How can we bring our people along with us, in a way that benefits everyone?
Through research, we’ve identified five schools of thought in this debate.
Position: Man and machine will wage a Darwinian struggle that machines will win. AI systems will take on tasks at the heart of middle- and high-skill jobs, while robots will perform menial work that requires low-skill labor. The result will be massive unemployment, falling wages, and wrenching economic dislocation. Falling incomes will have grave consequences in places like the United States and Europe, where consumption accounts for 56% or 69% of GDP, respectively, requiring new social supports, such as a universal basic income.
Position: Intelligent machines will take on even more work, but the result will be unprecedented wealth, not economic decline. AI and computing power will advance in the next two decades to achieve “the singularity” — when machines will be able to emulate the workings of the human brain in its entirety. Human brains will be “scanned” and “downloaded” to computers and billions of replicated human brains will do most of the cognitive work, while robots will do all the heavy lifting. Economic output could double every three months. The singularity may even lead to a world where little human labor is required, a universal income program covers basic needs, and people apply their talents to meaningful pursuits.
The Technology Optimists
Position: A burst of productivity has already begun but is not captured in official data because companies are still learning how intelligent technologies can change how they operate. When companies do take full advantage of intelligent technologies, a leap in productivity will produce a digital bounty — creating both economic growth and improvements in living standards not counted in GDP, such as consumer surplus (from better, cheaper products) and the value of free apps and information. However, based on current trends, the bounty won’t be distributed evenly, and many jobs will be displaced. To avoid negative income and employment effects, there will be a need to invest in education and training alongside investments in technology.
The Productivity Skeptics
Position: Despite the power of intelligent technologies, any gains in national productivity levels will be low. Combine that with headwinds from aging populations, income inequality, and the costs of dealing with climate change, and the United States will have near-zero GDP growth. In the end, there isn’t much to do except brace for stagnant growth in advanced economies.
The Optimistic Realists
Position: Digitization and intelligent machines can spur productivity gains that match previous technology waves. Productivity will advance rapidly in certain sectors and for high-performing companies. New jobs will be created, but intelligent technologies may exacerbate the trends of the recent past, in which demand rose for both high- and low-skill workers whose jobs could be easily automated, while demand for middle-skill workers fell. With no simple solutions, more research is needed into the true relationship between productivity, employment, and wages to uncover effective responses.
Three Actions for Shaping the Future
- Use technology to augment human skills and reinvent operating models.
- Take the opportunity to redefine jobs and rethink organizational design.
- Make employees your partners in building the intelligent enterprise.
The debate over technology and jobs will rage on. Business leaders must follow this debate — and participate in it, too. And much more research is needed to fully understand the implications of intelligent technologies on work. In the meantime, companies that actively seize control of what can be done to prepare will position themselves to thrive in this exciting new era.
Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at How Will AI Change Work? Here Are 5 Schools of Thought