Workplace AI revolution isn't happening yet

July 16, 2023

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Workplace AI revolution isn't happening yet

Consider the following statistics from the UK. They probably apply to most other developed economies.

  • Only 36% of UK employers have so far invested in AI and machine-learning technologies
  • Just 10% of those who hadn't invested planned to do so in the next two years
  • 75% reported finding it difficult to recruit people with the right digital skills
  • However, less than 10% of employers expect to make a lot of investment in digital skills training in the coming years

The UK, and other nations, risk a growing divide between organizations who have invested in new, artificial intelligence-enabled digital technologies and those who haven’t, new research suggests.

Only 36% of UK employers have invested in AI-enabled technologies like industrial robots, chat bots, smart assistants and cloud computing over the past five years, according to a nationally representative survey from the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre (Digit). The survey was carried out between November 2021 and June 2022.

The researchers found that just 10% of employers who hadn’t already invested in AI-enabled technologies were planning to invest in the next two years.

The new data also points to a growing skills problem. Less than 10% of employers anticipated a need to make an investment in digital skills training in the coming years, despite 75% finding it difficult to recruit people with the right skills. Almost 60% of employers reported that none of their employees had received formal digital skills training in the past year.

What the researchers say: “A mix of hope, speculation, and hype is fueling a runaway narrative that the adoption of new AI-enabled digital technologies will rapidly transform the UK’s labor market, boosting productivity and growth” said the lead researcher. “These hopes are often accompanied by fears about the consequences for jobs and even of existential risk.

“However, our findings suggest there is a need to focus on a different policy challenge. The workplace AI revolution is not happening quite yet. Policymakers will need to address both low employer investment in digital technologies and low investment in digital skills, if the economy is to realize the potential benefits of digital transformation.”

The researchers added: “At a time when AI is shifting digitalization into a higher gear, it is important to move beyond the hype and have a debate that is driven by evidence rather than fear and anecdote. This new report does exactly this and provides a nuanced picture of the impact of digital technologies on the workplace, highlighting both the risks and the opportunities.”

The main reasons for investing were improving efficiency, productivity and product and service quality, according to the survey. On the other hand, the key reasons for non-investment were AI being irrelevant to the business activity, wider business risks and the nature of skills demanded.

There was little evidence in this survey to suggest that investing in AI-enabled technology leads to job losses. In fact, digital adopters were more likely to have increased their employment in the five-year period before the survey.

As policymakers race to keep up with new developments in technology, the researchers are now urging politicians to focus on the facts of AI in the workplace.

So, what? This research presents an interesting element in the debate about AI. I think the question of job loss versus job gain is a lot more complex than the researchers—or most politicians for that matter—realize.

Prior research has shown that automation stopped creating new jobs in the 1980s and thereafter led to a net loss of jobs. Granted that as digitalization came into vogue new occupations were created—programmers for example. Now research has shown AI will lead to a huge loss of jobs in that field. The auto workers and others laid off by automation (and the export of jobs to China and elsewhere) never received the benefits of automation, much less digitization. Programmers most likely will face the same fate. As will bankers, screen writers, accountants and lawyers—all of whose occupations will suffer significant job loss over the next five years or so, according to current studies.

I spoke to a leading US economist recently who said that a person joining the workforce today would probably have to retrain for at least ten or more jobs/occupations over the course of their careers. But, sadly, only about 25% of the current workforce will be able to fit in with the new AI enabled economy. The rest will face permanent unemployment unless a number of occupations are reserved for human beings only—an unlikely event.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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