What impact does AI have on jobs, and who controls it?

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Does AI make our jobs better or worse? And for whom does AI work? And who really makes the decisions? We’ve all heard that technology is coming to take boring routine work from us, enabling us to perform more meaningful and productive work. This is the story heard in many workplaces when companies increase automation. Quite often, the reality is much more complicated.

Two sides of reality

I remember visiting Nokia’s factory when discussing meaningful work and new processes. This was years ago when I was a university student. Nokia was then making computers, amongst other things.

During the tour, the management of the factory told us how they have developed processes, functions and roles at the factory. Earlier, people did simple tasks on the assembly line, but by then, each employee had a larger role in assembling one PC, testing it and putting it in a box. So they had more responsibility, skills and freedom with their work. The management also explained how each employee was properly trained in their larger role. So, people also felt their work was more meaningful.

Then, we walked on the factory floor and stopped at the assembly point, where a guy in his 30s worked. We asked him how he felt now he was doing the complete assembly and packaging of the computer and that he was now responsible for the whole item going to a customer. He looked at us and said, “I don’t know anything about that; I just put these screws in the case; no one has told me about other things.”

This experience reminded me how jobs, processes and functions can look very different at different levels of an organization. And how reality and intention don’t always meet.

From theory to practice or vice versa

Now, we talk about how AI and automation can change expert jobs that need more education and competence. We hear similar stories about how AI is not going to take jobs away but will remove boring routine tasks and make our jobs more meaningful. But it is not the full story.

The Financial Times just published an article about a discussion with David Autor, an economics professor at MIT.  Generally, he is positive that AI can make jobs better. AI can make certain skills more valuable rather than replacing them entirely. AI could enhance the value of expertise, particularly for workers in roles requiring foundational judgment, allowing them to perform more complex tasks.

Autor mentions electrical work as an interesting example. People who can’t manage electrical work can’t do it with AI and online instructions either. They could easily cause a fire or even kill themselves. However, a person who has basic knowledge of electrical work can expand their competence and tasks they are able to do with online knowledge services and AI. We could even simplify the point by saying AI can empower an electrician to do much more demanding work, but it doesn’t enable a Ph.D. to do the work of an electrician. Could an office admin person manage coding with AI or a coder handle the admin work?

AI can replace some work routines fully, and in some cases, it can replace the work completely. But it is not so straightforward as taking a certain part of the most boring and meaningless tasks from each of us. This is not how new technologies have impacted jobs previously.

AI doesn’t have an equal impact on all jobs 

One person could lose their job, another could get rid of some routines, and others could be empowered to do much more demanding work. It is very important to accept this fact. Otherwise, we can create illusions for the job markets, organizations and individuals. Management often likes to sell new ideas with nice stories, but most people are smart enough to see the reality quickly.

It’s about values and politics, too

One part is what is technically possible, and another is what people want to do with the technology. Two areas that currently need new cost-effective resources in any country are healthcare and education. But with these, we also encounter questions about ethics, values and politics.

Do we want to leave AI to care for children and elderly people? Or should we empower the floor-level staff who are good with people to do more with AI and cut management and admin resources?  Could a nurse take tasks from doctors with AI, or should doctors be able to work without nurses with AI? Some answers depend on the available technology, but others are choices we can make. All this will depend on laws, regulations and ethical standards. And definitely, labour unions also have an impact on this development.

AI works, but with whose data

Then, it is also for whom AI works and with whose data? We already know that an e-commerce store’s AI wants your data to sell you more when your own personal AI finds you the best deals from different stores. Similar questions are emerging with other AI solutions, too.

For example, many expert-level employees can now make many of their own decisions for their work. But if they need to work all the time with an AI trained by their employer, its targets and data, it will change the expert’s job. Or if an employee can have more impact with an AI with whom they work. Then, it’s whether an AI is built to support an employee or the company has employees to support its AI.

Many non-technical questions

As we can see, many other non-technology questions exist on how AI will change our work. AI is not going to take control in the near future, but people must make decisions about who and how to control this development. There will also be a lot of politics inside companies and organizations. We hope the models can help people and improve work life. But we know there are also people who have different interests. The important thing is to remember we must make these decisions and not just think they are things that just happen.

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