Will robots steal our jobs, or how to stay in demand in the era of artificial intelligence?

The 21st century has already become an era of artificial intelligence (AI). Self-driving cars, speech and face recognition, spam filters and personal content recommendations, Siri and Amazon Alexa – all are examples of AI that make our lives more comfortable. However, there are also many reasons to be concerned.

Self-driving minibus in Tallinn. Image credit: Arno Mikkor / Wikimedia Commons

Meet your new colleague: a robot

To start with, it must be emphasized that the AI revolution happening nowadays is definitely different from the Industrial Revolution. Although previous inventions helped us to be better and to solve tasks quicker, just as AI today, all those industrial machines were dependent on people, while AI can work and develop itself independently. This suggests that current workers can be successfully substituted with AI. Will it actually happen?

In 2013, Oxford academics estimated that 47% of current jobs are at high risk by mid-2030. But do not rush to panic!

Firstly, while all drudgery and repetitive tasks are done by AI, professionals will have more time for really creative and challenging assignments.

In 2018, American researchers found that machine learning could solve some tasks better than humans; however, it couldn’t perform all tasks needed for the job as well as its human counterpart. For this reason, it’s more likely that during the next few decades professionals won’t become unemployed but will collaborate with co-robots, who will help them to deal with different tasks much more quickly than before. For instance, BMW researchers found that robot-human teams were about 85% more productive than either alone.

Another example of successful collaboration between AI and professionals is a start-up called Arterys, which reads MRIs of the heart and measures blood flow through its ventricles in just 15 seconds, compared with the 45 minutes required by humans. It is expected of AI to act as a diagnostic aid, flagging specific images which human professionals should examine more carefully. This will make examination results and hence treatment more accurate and effective.

Additionally, such technical problems as algorithmic bias (repeatable errors in a computer system that create unfair outcomes) and lack of transparency (even computer scientists do not always fully understand how AI complete its tasks) are already affecting AI decisions today. Therefore, the collaboration between AI and human professionals seems to be the best solution at least for the near future.

More vacancies, new skills

Throughout the history of human development, a lot of jobs that existed before and seemed to be very important were successfully automated (e.g., typists, elevator operators, and film projectionists) and new fascinating jobs were created.

Ats Cine Projector Operators, UK, 1941. Image credit: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer / Wikimedia Commons

“The Future of Jobs 2018” report, released by the World Economic Forum, says the following: Across all industries, by 2022, growth in emerging professions is set to increase their share of employment from 16% to 27% (11% growth) of the total employee base of company respondents, whereas the employment share of declining roles is set to decrease from the current 31% to 21% (10% decline). Thus, there are expected to be even more vacancies than now. However, people who lose their low-qualified jobs will have to obtain new skills if they don’t want to be unemployed.

In the beginning of the 20th century, industrialization contributed to the growth and popularization of education as the industrial age required more educated citizens than agricultural times. As a result, schooling was transformed into a widespread and hierarchical educational system. Nowadays our educational system must be changed again, since it is still aimed at meeting the needs of the industrial rather than AI era. Thereby, one of the most important actions to prevent mass unemployment is to develop a wide-ranging educational approach that will provide a basis and skills for a wide range of different jobs.

Thus, those who constantly improve their skills and knowledge and understand that nowadays you’re not going to do one thing throughout your life won’t become unemployed, at least in the 21st century. Here is when the concept of life-long learning becomes not just important, but essential for everyone who wants to be in demand.

In conclusion, the challenge is not that we’re running out of work, but how we are going to deal with new challenges – how we will change our education, how will we change our understanding of work and life, and how we will change ourselves. There is no need to worry that some kind of AI will steal your job in a few days; however, there is definitely a necessity to regularly ask yourself: What can I do today so that I will be in demand tomorrow?

Anastasiia Litvinenko is a master’s student of IT Law at the University of Tartu.

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