Amid all the excitement about the rapid innovations in AI technologies is the nagging questions about the possible effects they will have on the workforce, including what jobs are most likely to benefit and which probably will disappear.
It’s a worry that has arisen at each point in history where there’s been a technological leap forward, in most recent years with the mainstreaming of software use and later the rise of AI and machine learning. The rapid investment and adoption of generative AI by the corporate world since the launch a year ago by OpenAI of its ChatGPT chatbot has again kicked up discussion about the future of jobs.
Comments like those by IBM CEO Arvind Krishna in an interview with Bloomberg in May – that 30% of back-office jobs like HR can be done by AI and automation over time and that the company planned to slow or pause the hiring for such jobs in the next few years – reinforce the worry that AI could lead to the elimination of a lot of jobs.
However, there also is a widening gap in the need for AI-skilled workers and the lack of them on the market, enough so that companies like Amazon and IBM are rolling out education and training programs in hopes of creating 2 million people skilled in generative AI in the next few years.
So how accurate are those worries of disappearing jobs among the onslaught of AI technologies? It’s a guessing game for workers themselves. A survey this month by search engine Spokeo found that 66% of those surveyed believe AI can do their job and 34.4% said their tops concerns were the impact on wages and jobs. Still, 78% said AI could reduce the stress of their jobs and 76.7% said it could reduce the number of working days for employees.
Early Returns on AI in the Workplace
The European Central Bank (ECB) tried to get a read on what the future holds by looking at the impact on jobs and wages by other technological advances, such as widespread computerization and, more recently, the rise of deep learning application in the previous decade.
In a report released Tuesday, the ECB said that in these early days, it seems that the rapid adoption of AI is having a larger negative effect on wages – slightly reducing them – than on jobs, for which the technology seems to be growing, particularly for some slices of the workforce.
However, throughout the report, the ECB cautioned that many of its findings could change as the technology evolves and that nothing should be etched in stone.
“We show that during the deep learning boom of the 2010s, occupations potentially more exposed to AI-enabled technologies actually increased their employment share in Europe,” the agency wrote. “However, the jury is still out on whether the same can be expected from new developments in AI-enabled technologies. When the verdict comes in, it could be win or lose – not only for jobs, but also for equality and prosperity in Europe.”
Looking at 16 European Countries
The ECB looked at the relationship between AI technologies and employment in 16 European countries between 2011 and 2019, during the rise of deep learning applications like language processing, image recognition, algorithm-based recommendations, and fraud detection, but before the introduction of generative AI.
What the study found was that about a quarter of all jobs in the countries studied were highly exposed to automation created by AI, including a higher proportion of highly skilled workers than what was seen at the time of advances in software.
“This supports the case that AI-enabled technologies could be in competition with high-skilled jobs. While the exposure to technology varies for different levels of skills, it is relatively uniform across age groups,” the authors wrote.
AI-enabled automation will likely increase the number of jobs in Europe, particularly for younger workers and those in high-skilled occupations, the study found. This is a departure from other periods of significant technological advances, such as when widespread computerization reduced the job market for medium-skilled workers, which increased polarization between those with higher skills and mid- to low-skilled workers.
There’s no evidence of similar polarization this time around, including little likelihood of software replacing routine medium-skilled jobs.
The Future is Uncertain
Overall, the ECB found a “mixed picture” across the 16 countries studied. The optimistic picture of AI-enabled automation juicing up the employment numbers is true for most of the countries, with the differences between the others coming down to such economic factors as how quickly the technology is adopted in the country, education and the level of regulation, which can impact competition in products and labor.
During the rapid growth of deep learning in the 2010s, those jobs more exposed to the AI technology saw the employment share in Europe grow, with younger and skilled workers benefitting the most. That said, the data around wages isn’t as clear, with AI likely having a neutral or slightly negative impact.
However, the study’s authors warned about expecting the results to remain the same given the amount of innovation still ongoing in AI and the volatile nature of technology. There’s much more information coming.
“These results do not amount to an acquittal,” they wrote. “AI-enabled technologies continue to be developed and adopted. Most of their impact on employment and wages – and therefore on growth and equality – has yet to be seen.”