In the face of predictions that Artificial Intelligence and automation could see between 400 and 800 million jobs vanish by 2030, a new study contends society is “still in the driving seat” when it comes to AI’s impact on the future of work.

Arguing that technology is not the sole cause of change – that political, economic and cultural factors also come in to play – the Royal Society and the British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences report contends there is much that can be done “to shape the way that new AI technologies change the economy and the workforce, and to ensure the benefits are shared equally”.

One suggestion is the introduction of a new “post-16 curriculum” which would include the sciences, maths, arts, and humanities to “equip young people with the wider range of skills they will need to adapt to an AI-enabled future”.

The study – The impact of artificial intelligence on work: an evidence synthesis on implications for individuals, communities, and societies  – finds there is evidence to contest an “end of work” hypothesis; however AI will “nonetheless resemble previous waves of change in changing and creating jobs as well as rendering others obsolete”.

Lower paid and lower skilled jobs are more at risk than in previous waves of technological change, it says, although “personal care work and manual work in unpredictable environments appear to be exceptions to this trend”.

The study argues that, in the short term, AI could contribute to a widening of inequality if lower-income workers are disproportionately affected and benefits are not widely distributed.


Options for policy makers

However, societies can shape the way that new AI technologies change the economy and the workforce to ensure the benefits are shared equally. For example, policy makers can:

  • Ensure workers of the future are equipped with the education and skills they will need to be ‘digital citizens’;
  • Address concerns over the changing nature of working life such as income security and the ‘gig economy’;
  • Meet the likely demand for re-training of displaced workers through new approaches to training and development; and
  • Introduce measures to share the benefits of AI across communities, including by supporting local economic growth.

Automation, it says, is expected to have “a lesser effect on jobs with a high proportion of tasks that involve managing people, applying expertise, and social interactions”.

Manual and practical workers such as gardeners, plumbers, and providers of health and care services are also expected to experience lower levels of automation by 2030.

However, it notes research that highlights the risk of automation in ‘professional’ occupations such as legal counsel – “consumers may attach greater value to the outcome of accurate legal advice, by whatever means it is achieved”.

“How and where professional tasks are automated therefore relies on a combination of the accuracy and consistency offered by computer systems, and the human interaction that customers may feel is important, especially in moments of significant life change,” it says.


Concentration of market power

The study warns that digital technologies may “contribute to concentration of market power by enabling the emergence of ‘platform’ markets which tend to be dominated by one or two firms”.

“Platforms benefit from snowballing direct network effects – whereby the value to a customer increases as the number of other customers using the same platform rises.

“In this context, the most productive businesses can become ‘superstar’ firms that employ relatively few workers in terms of share of labour in revenue.”

The report argues that technology itself “is not a unique or overwhelming force driving societal changes”.

“Other factors also contribute to change, including political, economic, and cultural elements. In recent years, technology has contributed to a form of job polarisation that has favoured higher-educated workers, while removing middle-income jobs, and increasing competition for non-routine manual labour.”


Technology used to boost productivity and growth

It speculates that in the future, new jobs linked to AI may be concentrated in different areas to those where there are job losses.

“This could pose significant challenges, particularly given evidence that low-educated workers are less likely than high-educated workers to move in response to potential job opportunities,” it says.

Professor Alan Wilson, a steering group member for the report, said a lot can be done now to ensure the advantages of AI are shared equally and that technology is used to boost productivity and growth.

“Adopting a broad post-16 curriculum which incorporates maths, science, humanities and social sciences, would go a long way in building resilience to future change,” he said.

“We are not powerless to address the magnitude of the change ahead. The future of work is in our hands.”


Read the report in full

The impact of artificial intelligence on work: an evidence synthesis on implications for individuals, communities, and societies


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