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May 3, 2017

Job Worries Grow as AI Shifts to Public Sector

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Warnings about massive job displacement brought about by artificial intelligence are growing louder as researchers cite more examples of private sector and, more recently, pubic sector adoption of automation to perform both routine tasks and analysis.

A report released in late April by the Washington think tank The Brookings Institution predicts the rise cognitive computing systems “brings a potentially massive shift in the way that work is done, which could lead to an equally massive displacement of the workforce.”

With an estimated 83 percent of workers making less than $20 per hour likely to lose jobs to automation, “it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see the potential for significant job displacement, particularly of low- and middle-skilled workers,” the authors warned.

While private sector adoption of AI tools such as machine learning have made steady inroads in enterprises seeking to improve business operations, the researchers note that AI algorithms are increasingly being leveraged in public sector applications.

In one example from the Brookings study, the researchers reported that Hong Kong’s immigration department is using AI algorithms to sort visa, passport and residency applications. (Given its special status, Hong Kong has a particularly heavy immigration workload stemming from its proximity to the booming Chinese city of Shenzhen.)

Hong Kong officials are using the algorithms to scan and sort each application into one of three categories: approved, denied or uncertain. Visa officers then review questionable applications before making a decision.

The researchers noted that the Singapore government also is using virtual assistants to reduce workloads at call centers handling questions about tax returns.

In the U.S., some state governments are experimenting with chatbots that attempt to answer routine questions normally handled by human services employees.

While the researchers acknowledge that adoption of AI could help improve delivery of government services, they also warned that cash-strapped state and local governments could eventually replace workers with AI technologies. Similarly, critics of “smart cities” argue these technologies could ultimately undermine local governments.

“This disruption requires holistic thinking about consequences across the entire social, political, and economic ecosystem,” the Brookings researchers warned. “Towards this end, the U.S. must consider modernizing its higher-education systems to prepare the workforce for this possibility.”

Along with worker retraining programs, they added: “It is important for policymakers to plan for a new economic system where machine-to-machine interactions fundamentally alter the nature of work, the design of organizations and the execution of transactions.

The study was authored by Kevin Desouza of Brookings’ Center for Technology Innovation along with two Arizona State University researchers: Gregory Dawson, a faculty member of ASU’s Center for Organization Research and Design; and Bryce Santiago, a graduate student at ASU’s Carey School of Business.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of AI-based tools aimed at improving business operations such as customer service continue to hit the market. For example, outsourcing giant Infosys Ltd. recently unveiled the second generation of its AI platform that seeks to move beyond traditional customer support tasks like providing technical advice to more advance business operations such as gauging material and manufacturing costs.

Mindful of growing concerns about worker displacement, Infosys CEO Vishal Sikka stressed that the upgraded platform represents its “purposeful approach to AI … in which technology serves to amplify” workers rather than simply replacing them.

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