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What is the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) in an economy that has been whipsawed by worker resignations on one hand, and layoffs and hiring freezes on the other?
As I think about this one-two punch, Batman comes to mind. Hear me out.
For years, AI-driven automation has been seen as a potential job killer. The thinking: robots and drones would replace the hands-on work of builders and doers. We’re getting a glimpse of this with driverless cars and automated factories.
But it’s possible that AI could have the opposite effect and drive demand for skilled workers in new jobs. In this scenario, rote administrative work might indeed give way to algorithmic processes, but new opportunities are created for workers in data-intensive businesses.
So, which is it? Does AI take jobs or create jobs?
Back to Batman. A perennial favorite in popular culture, Batman is sometimes viewed warily by those that may not fully understand him. He’s both the Dark Knight and a force for good.
AI has its own duality, the dark side being its stereotyped reputation as a job killer. But because AI can spur new-style jobs while also driving efficiencies, the business world, like Gotham City, will be a better place.
I’m convinced that AI will be a net positive for today’s workforce, as well as for businesses that are trying to strike the right balance in a global economy that rewards operational efficiency yet punishes those unable to attract and retain talent.
AI-driven processes and applications push both of those levers. They can increase business productivity while also establishing high-value jobs. Those do not have to be competing interests, nor should they.
The productivity boost — as much as 40%, according to Accenture and Frontier Economics — comes in the form of automation. At the same time, the thing that AI does really well is provide the underpinnings for a data-driven business environment. This is where job creation or what we might call “job metamorphosis” happens, as even entry-level workers take a bigger role in the data value chain. Instead of work that depends on monotonous routines, or is arduous or even dangerous, AI can free up people to focus on tasks that engage their human ingenuity.
These data-driven, AI-enabled jobs are the ones that will attract and retain a modern workforce, and there are many ways to do it. I worked with a company that had a cadre of employees whose jobs entailed creating routine marketing reports each week by hand-compiling incoming data from the company’s multitude of regions and business units. It was repetitive, assembly-line work, without much of a career path.
The company replaced that workbench approach with an AI-driven, self-service model that gave business units more flexibility to do their own data crunching. That freed up the reports team to pursue more innovative analysis and intellectually engaging projects. In the process, the company was able to trim costs by reducing its dependency on outside agencies it had relied on for the deep insights that the in-house reports team now had time for.
A force for good
It’s understandable that people may not be 100% comfortable about the impact that AI can have on jobs. We’ve heard the dystopian predictions — disappearing jobs, AI bias, even our inability to “trust” AI.
To take the Dark Knight analogy one step further, if CEOs had a Batphone on their desk during the Great Resignation, many would have called for help. As recently as May, there were 11.3 million unfilled jobs in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Notably, it was the COVID pandemic, not AI, that caused the jobs crisis. But AI is now viewed by many business leaders as a potential solution to all those unfillable jobs. When talent is hard to find, workplace efficiency becomes a necessity. And AI excels at that.
The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020 shows both sides of this long-term trend. It forecasts that 85 million jobs will be displaced by automation by 2025. At the same time, 97 million “jobs of tomorrow” will be created, resulting in a net gain of 12 million jobs.
Let’s pave career paths on the data continuum
The types of jobs that involve data know-how are fast expanding. We see evidence of this every day across industries, including automotive, financial services and manufacturing. Even farms are using sensors and data intelligence to grow corn and soybeans.
At the center of the activity are data practitioners — data scientists, data engineers, data architects and business analysts. Increasingly, however, even workers who may not have four-year college degrees are becoming part of the data continuum. For example, in a data-first retailing operation to which all employees have access and are encouraged to participate, a sales associate in a sports store may make note of growing interest in a new style of running shoe, providing input into the enterprise-wide system.
The career path for these workers can be enriched and made more valuable, benefiting employers and employees alike, when data touchpoints are among the job responsibilities.
As more businesses move in this direction, it’s important to understand that the objective is not simply to accumulate and process more data. Many organizations already have more data than they can manage, and it just keeps growing. AI, by sifting through mountains of data, can empower humans to act upon business-expanding insights.
The key to success is creating actionable data, and CEOs don’t need a cape to do that. It starts with a data-driven, AI-enabled culture that includes the entire workforce.
Florian Douetteau is cofounder and CEO of Dataiku.