September 19, 2016

Does ‘Cognitive Era’ Mean Fewer Jobs?

George Leopold

A recent technology study forecasts that artificial intelligence and machine learning could fill 7 percent of existing U.S. jobs over the next decade. Whether or not that’s a good thing is a subject of intense debate as automation and machine learning make steady inroads in the U.S. manufacturing and service sectors.

Forrester Research released the forecast that estimates robots and other forms of automation such as AI and machine learning will steadily replace U.S. workers. The 7-percent net loss estimate is based on further projections that these technologies would fuel a 9-percent jump in new jobs while 16 percent are lost to automation.

Hardest hit will be the “office and administrative support staff” sectors, the researcher said, adding that “cubicle work” (which is estimated to account for 89 percent of U.S. jobs) could be augmented with cognitive technologies.

While this “cognitive era” is expected to create 8.9 million new U.S. jobs by 2025, Forrester Research also noted that 93 percent of “automation technologists” feel unprepared for the workplace challenges presented by machine learning and other technologies.

Hence, there is growing unease among some American workers about being displaced by automation along with worries about keeping pace with rapidly evolving analytics technologies.

For example, another market survey on the promise and pitfalls of using intelligence machines in the workplace released earlier this year by Accenture Strategy identified several hurdles for widespread adoption, including a “trust gap within the managerial ranks.”

While 46 percent of high-level managers said they would trust advice provided by intelligent systems, only 24 percent of mid-level managers expressed strong support for the technology. Perhaps fearful of being replaced by a machine, only 14 percent of front-line managers surveyed showed enthusiasm for working with intelligent machines.

Not surprisingly, the vendors of AI and machine learning tools downplay these concerns, arguing that the transition to cognitive platforms in the workplace should be accelerated in order to boost worker productivity.

Vendors such as SparkCognition don’t sugar coat the numbers, acknowledging that AI alone could eliminate up to 8 million transportation-related and administrative positions. The company based in Austin, Texas, expects far fewer jobs to be created by AI, robotics and other automation technologies, suggesting a “significant net job loss in our near future” that is likely greater than what Forrester Research projects.

“When all of these jobs start going away, we need to ask,

What is it that makes us productive? What does productivity mean?” asks SparkCognition CEO Amir Husain. “Now we’re confronting the changing reality and questioning society’s

underlying assumptions.

“We have to really think about this and decide what makes us productive and what is the value of people in society,” Husain added. “We need to have this debate and have it quickly, because the technology won’t wait for us.”

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