MaRS Future of Work Conference: Preparing the Labour Force for the AI Age

Andrew Abballe 

On November 24, 2016 MaRS Discovery District hosted a panel entitled “Future of Work: Artificial Intelligence and Robotics,” which featured a discussion between technological entrepreneurs on the implications of artificial intelligence (AI) for the labour market.

The State of AI Today

Contrary to some claims, AI is not expected to make humans obsolete in the near future. While technological change has evolved rapidly, AI does not currently have the capacity to fully automate human activity. Generalized AI – robots that have equal to or greater intellectual capacity than humans – will not be developed any time soon.

aiRecent technology has excelled at automating specific tasks – this is called specialized AI. These developments have been diffused across different skill sets, although there has only been significant progress in some areas. For instance, AI has excelled in image recognition and language translation ,but has not been able to make strides in developing human reasoning or creativity.

What Does Artificial Intelligence Mean for the Labour Market?

According to research from the Brookfield Institute, 42 per cent of the Canadian labour force is employed in jobs that are of high risk of becoming automated in the next ten to twenty years. AI poses the most significant risk for low-skilled workers, including individuals who are engaged in predictable routine and repetitive tasks. As panellist Ken Nickerson, CEO of iBinary LLC and Creative Destruction Lab says, “If your job is boring, it is a prime candidate for AI.”

While AI threatens routinized work it provides a premium for high-skilled workers. According to the theory of skills-biased technical change, the increase in the demand for and productivity of high-skilled workers has allowed them to benefit from significant wage increases. This is evident in growing wage differences between those who hold graduate, college, and high school degrees.

Entry-level jobs that require workers to collect and synthesize data are likely to be automated by new technologies.  

With regard to the knowledge sector, AI will restructure traditional career trajectories.  Entry-level jobs that require workers to collect and synthesize data are likely to be automated by new technologies.  For example, in the legal field, first-year associates spend a lot of time working on due diligence contract review. According to Noah Waisberg, “AI technology can review contract documents with the same or greater accuracy than lawyers in anywhere from 20 per cent to 90 per cent less time.”

caught_coding_9690512888All of this means that the real value added of a worker will be their ability to make creative, innovative, and high-quality decisions with the data available to them. Individuals will no longer have to engage in repetitive and redundant tasks, but will instead be forced to utilize character traits that are uniquely human, such as our cognitive abilities and emotional intelligence.

Policy Responses

Many technological innovators, including Elon Musk, have been calling for a guaranteed basic income. They argue that a basic income would protect vulnerable and displaced workers from the immediate effects of AI on the labour market.

Rapid advancements in the new economy mean that it is imperative for workers to be able to continually learn new skills and adapt to new environments. Workers must not become complacent with their current jobs and skill sets but, rather, must engage in lifelong learning.

Companies have also been recognizing the importance of retraining programs. Recently, AT&T developed a skills retraining program that aims to enable current employees to develop the critical skills needed to remain competitive in their company. Greater collaboration across industries and between the public and private sectors is crucial for identifying the skills needed by future workers, and implementing programs that fill in the skills gap.

The panellists clarified that, in a time of immense change, versatility and adaptability are the most important attributes for workers to exhibit. Rapid advancements in the new economy mean that it is imperative for workers to be able to continually learn new skills and adapt to new environments. Workers must not become complacent with their current jobs and skill sets but, rather, must engage in lifelong learning.

Two Paths

It is clear that the status quo of social and labour market programs is no longer acceptable. The results of the 2016 US presidential election were a clear indication of disapproval led, in part, by those disenfranchised by technological change and globalization.

Countries must take action to restructure their social safety nets to protect displaced workers and heavily invest in skills training programs.

AI can have immense benefits for society.  The panelists emphasized that AI can increase access to essential services through cost reductions in areas such as law and medicine. Developed countries can use AI and robotics to assist others in emerging markets. As automation replaces the need for humans to do redundant work, nations can invest more time and resources into addressing pressing social issues. Lastly, with the advent of AI, individuals could invest more time in meaningful, self-fulfilling work.

Fear of technological change is nothing new. With active, informed, and forward-looking policy planning, we can ensure that the opportunity AI presents benefits us all.

Andrew Abballe is 2017 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance. He holds a double major from the University of Toronto in Ethics, Society & Law and International Relations. His policy interests include economic, education, social policy and innovation.

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2 responses to “MaRS Future of Work Conference: Preparing the Labour Force for the AI Age

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