SPECIAL REPORT Chris Middleton looks at a new report on the future of work, and finds troubling gaps between the promise of AI and automation, and the real world the technologies are delivering.
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With automation and AI sweeping into the workplace, a new report on the future of work finds that the younger workers are, the more sceptical they are of the benefits of the technology.
In all, 50 percent of workers are not convinced about the benefits of AI, claims collaboration tech provider, Fuze. However, only 36 percent of employees over the age of 55 have a downbeat assessment of the technology, versus 45 per cent of those aged 45-54, 51 percent of those aged 35-44, and 52 percent of workers under 35.
In fact, adding these four sets of figures together gives us an average response of 46 percent of workers sceptical about AI, not 50 percent, suggesting that younger employees are significantly more cynical about the technology’s benefits than the average of all four groups.
Exposure to risk
So what’s behind the figures?
The report says: “Perhaps this is due to the fact that workers aged under 30 appear to be more aware they are exposed to AI, with 50 percent saying they are experiencing AI in the workplace, compared to only 27 percent of those aged over 55. Or perhaps there is greater concern that developments in AI will have the biggest impact on those with a career of 20 years or more ahead of them.”
In short, younger workers seem more attuned to the risks to their careers, a point confirmed by Melanie Turek, VP of research at analyst firm Frost & Sullivan, in the report.
“Workers might be right to worry,” she said. “Currently, about 23 percent of respondents have replaced over 20 percent of customer service representatives with technology-enabled solutions, such as AI-powered robots. This trend will continue over the next two years, with plans to replace another 34 percent of agents with automated solutions.”
On average, 40 percent of employees are seeing AI play a role in the daily operations of their company, says the report, which spoke to over 6,500 knowledge workers in medium to large enterprises in the US, Canada, UK, Australia, France, Germany, Spain, and Scandinavia.
The problem of problem solving
With advances in machine learning, a growing number of businesses are looking to supplement their business intelligence with AI, it continues. While automation has left many workers worried about the future of their roles, AI poses a more abstract concern.
“Where automation supplements tactical processes, AI touches upon the more human aspects of work, augmenting creativity, problem solving, and even personal communication,” says Fuze. “Given this fact, workers are understandably more sceptical of AI technology.”
This is a critical point in the context of the report, because by far the most popular human aspect of work is problem solving, according to the research. Asked what parts of their work they enjoy the most, problem solving topped the list, cited by 64 percent of respondents, followed by working with people and learning new things (both on 52 percent).
By contrast, analysing data was the thing that most respondents said they are worst at, mentioned by 34 percent of – ironically – knowledge workers.
These findings suggest a lurking problem in the automated economy: not only will AI do some of the work that people say they are least able to do – analysing data – it will also take away the thing they enjoy the most: problem solving.
In fact, the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) report on the job impacts of AI said that data analysis will be one of the most in-demand human skills in the decade ahead, as people work alongside machines. So Fuze is suggesting that not enough people have those skills in the knowledge economy today.
Despite this, 66 percent of respondents said they aren’t worried about the impact of automation itself on their companies – it’s AI that they don’t trust.
So what else does Fuze have to say about the future of work? The former phone company (it ditched the old ThinkingPhones brand in 2016) paints a picture of rising flexible and gig economy work, enabled by collaborative technology, which is handy for Fuze, as that’s what it sells.
The sense that the report is slanted in the company’s favour is hidden in plain sight: at one point, respondents were given a choice of two statements to choose from: ‘I do my best work when I involve other people’ and ‘I would rather work with people than alone’. But that’s not to say the report is wrong.
Fuze’s research finds a rising number of employees refocusing on their work-life balance, family responsibilities, and health by working flexibly and remotely – except for senior managers.
While 53 percent of respondents still work from the office every day, only 20 percent of workers actually want to, says the report. Overall, 77 percent of employees would prefer to incorporate flexible and remote working into their lives. However, 84 percent of business owners and 85 percent of senior managers still want to work from head office – becoming physically remote from their staff, perhaps.
But what does the future worker look like?
‘Work as a service’
The report says, “It has long been said that work has moved from being ‘where you go’ to ‘what you do.’ Now the concept of work is evolving once again. Thanks to mobile technology and a growing gig economy mentality, work is no longer what you do, but rather how you think.
“By treating work as a mindset that can be switched on and off, today’s employees can truly work in any place at any time. To accommodate this shift, businesses must adopt an equally fluid approach, embracing the ‘work as a service’ model, rather than attempting to define when and where people should feel their most productive.”
A cynic might suggest that ‘work as a service’ is code for senior managers making up the core of a company and employing a host of gig-economy workers on a project basis to cut their costs. And according to Fuze, that assessment isn’t wide of the mark.
“We’re all in a ‘project economy’ now,” said ‘work futurist’ and founder of The Solo Project, Michael Hopkins, in the report. “For the most recent measurable period, all net US employment growth came from the increase in independent workers, whose population jumped more than 50 percent while the number of traditional jobholders actually declined.
“And despite media portrayals, these aren’t Uber drivers or Airbnb hosts – they’re strategists, designers, brand consultants, technologists, and specialists of the sort most organisations can’t afford or wouldn’t choose to keep on permanent payroll.”
Of course they are, Mr Hopkins.
The gig economy conundrum
Leaving aside the question of whether Hopkins is really talking about himself in the second paragraph, some of what he says is supported by the recent WEF report, which suggested that technologists and change management professionals will be in the ascendant over the next five to 10 years, while accountants, lawyers, bankers, auditors, financial analysts, and business managers join the redundancy queue.
But despite Hopkins’ protestations, many of those flexible workers are, in fact, Uber drivers and other tech-assisted ad hoc workers. And this is where the gig economy conundrum kicks in.
Recent research published in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere found that Uber and Lyft drivers, for example, are being paid less than half of what they were four years ago. During the same timescale, the number of households earning income from transport-related work grew twentyfold.
Many ad hoc workers find themselves on zero hours contracts – or on no contract at all. And many such people are now being paid less and less as the gig economy spreads – and lack holiday or sickness pay, of course.
In other words, these workers may benefit from a world of flexibility and mobility, but they have few economic benefits.
The implications are inescapable. While some gig economy workers may be individuals with niche skills who can command premium pay for project work, the vast majority are people who are scrabbling for ad hoc employment to make ends meet. And the more these people join the gig economy, the fewer of them can make a living from it, thanks to the same network effect that found them the job.
Zoom out to look at the big picture, and this suggests a world in which companies get smaller and wealthier, while their former workers network for cash against rising numbers of freelance competitors.
But of course, AI, robotics, automation, and Industry 4.0 will create new companies and jobs too, just as ecommerce and mobile apps have. The WEF forecast a net increase of 58 million jobs in the world economy by 2022.
So while a number of recent surveys have warned of AI and automation creating a more divided society in terms of those who have the technology and those who don’t – such as the recent McKinsey report – the real danger will be the numbers of people who find themselves in the gig economy with their wages spiralling downward.
Indeed, right-wing think tank Reform published an AI and automation report in February 2017 that made this precise point. Reform suggested that it would be a good thing for the public sector – because it saves money – if doctors, nurses, teachers, and others who serve the public entered the gig economy, where they could compete by reverse auction against their peers.
Depressingly, the Fuze report – while maintaining its upbeat tone – makes the same basic point.
“Companies seem to be getting the message: they are less focused on retaining full-time employees and more concerned with improving key business processes that make everyone more successful,” said Frost & Sullivan’s Turek.
“About one-third of respondents found reducing operational costs, improving the customer experience, and improving their digital presence as top drivers for IT investment over the next two years.
“What dropped? Attaining and retaining workforce, by eight points.”
In case that’s not clear, organisations are shedding staff, not because their businesses are becoming smarter, but primarily because it reduces their operating costs and makes their tech look more inviting.
Capgemini found the same thing recently, in one of several recent reports to warn that organisations are adopting AI for the wrong reasons: to slash staff costs, and not to make their businesses smarter.
This, then, is the real challenge of the AI-enabled, automated economy. While vendors like IBM, Google, and Microsoft all say that cognitive services exist to complement human skills, not replace them, business leaders mainly see a short-term, tactical means to slash headcount.
Meanwhile – as the WEF report found earlier this month – up-skilling and retraining employees for the future will be the economic imperative over the next 20 years, but not enough businesses share that vision.
- Read more: Prove that AI works with real examples, say consumers: Industry report
- Read more: AI bubble set to burst, says critical analyst report
- Read more: PwC: AI will create more jobs than it destroys. But is it right? | Special report
Plus: The Snapchat generation
In related news, managed communications provider Maintel has published research suggesting that a “substantial proportion of employees” would like to use consumer-grade tools, such as Snapchat or Facebook Messenger, for work.
Key findings from the survey of 1,000 employed adults include:
- 24 percent say they would like Snapchat to be approved by their employer, 19 percent Twitter, and 17 percent Facebook Messenger.
- In an average working day, two or more hours are spent on: Instagram (41 percent), Facebook Messenger (32 percent), and WhatsApp (29 per cent).
- However, Instagram is not approved in 41 percent of organisations, Facebook Messenger in 34 percent, and Snapchat in 38 percent.