How not to surrender to white collar automation

Office workers aren’t immune to job takeover by AI.

AI permeating the fabric of our lives

Most press and research reports in the past decade have focused on the global trend of AI displacing low-skilled (a.k.a. blue collar) labor in industrial manufacturing, agriculture and logistics. White collar, office workers have largely assumed their jobs would remain intact as no machine algorithm could possibly be intelligent enough to outsmart them. For better or for worse, these types of assumptions are becoming more precarious by the day. Artificial intelligence has already been successfully tested and applied to a large variety of office tasks, ranging from routine administrative work to the more sophisticated data analysis and planning.

Robots stealing white collar office jobs too?

Following the success of RPA implementation in its warehouses, automation-obsessed Amazon has already notoriously commenced automating a variety of white-collar jobs, too. Where the global e-retailer has previously relied on human experts to manage demand planning, it has since transitioned this decision-making authority to predictive algorithms.

When Amazon first launched its AI-driven project, incongruously called ‘hands off the wheel,’ algorithms were still in a testing phase and employees could interfere in the machines’ decision-making processes. In a role reversal, as artificial intelligence kept improving, human decision-making took second place. The algorithms had proven their value over time – unlike imprecise, inconsistent humans, they were correct most of the time.

Forrester predicts RPA (robot process automation) will replace upwards of 12 million jobs in the United States alone, by 2025.

Administrative jobs most vulnerable to AI

Sectors like manufacturing and agriculture have used process and production automation tech for decades. In the past few years, automation has been introduced to many other product and service industries, including but not limited to logistics, banking and finance, e-commerce, sports, healthcare, and education.

In the U.S. and Canada fire and police departments nationwide are testing tech for dispatching emergency calls. Fedex is exploring technology that would enable pilots to fly hundreds of delivery drone planes remotely. Teacher jobs are also subject to automation – imagine a robotic instructor who can teach all possible subjects without taking lunch breaks and who can be easily placed in as many schools and classrooms as needed?

Fashion designers, lawyers, and doctors are professions that most believed would be spared by machine intelligence. But, they too are becoming ever more replaceable by clever algorithms, predictive intelligence and matching patterns that are getting educated workers the world over in a tizzy.

AI-proof skills and knowledge

Surely, the simpler the task, the more easily it can be automated, which still warrants the pursuit of higher education for humans. Nevertheless, to stay competitive in an AI world, we can no longer rely on obtaining degrees in our 20’s and never studying again in our lifetimes. Continuous learning and skill acquisition are pretty much the only courses of action that could potentially prevent job displacement by automation.  

What RPA would be hard pressed to replace are the skills and personality traits that make us human, including compassion, emotional intelligence, or an understanding of the bigger picture. Also, RPA is bound to create additional work while it streamlines time-consuming, repetitive tasks. Computer algorithms can’t be left unchecked to their own devices and they still need to be directed, programmed and improved. While some jobs are bound to be displaced, new ones will be created, and they will ultimately require a different set of skills.

Human job outlook beyond 2020

Despite widespread fears, the more likely scenario for white-collar jobs in the next decade is that AI will help augment and assist them rather than fully replace them. Automation is still in its early stages when it comes to white collar task replacement. The roles that are bound to experience the most disruption would be those in administration, customer service and routine office work. The main lesson for humanity is that the sooner we’re able to upgrade our skills and, when needed, retrain, the more immune we would remain to giving up our jobs to tireless, emotionless robots.

Copywriter: Ina Danova

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