How will digital transformation affect the workforce? It’s a question I’m asked all the time and will be addressing in my upcoming talk at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.
Of course, there is no one answer to that question—rather, many possibilities to consider and prepare for.
The historical interplay between technology, labor, and wages
What we do know from history is that technology always replaces human labor in some form. Sometimes technology complements skills—which has typically driven wages up—and sometimes it substitutes for skills—which has typically driven wages down.
The bulldozer was a complement to skills because it made digging a higher-skilled job. While we needed less people to dig, those who had the skills to use the new technology—the bulldozer—made more money than when digging was done with shovels.
On the other hand, when the cash register came out, it became a substitute for people’s math skills. Since cashiers no longer had to compute change, it became a lower-skilled job, which drove wages down.
Will AI complement or substitute for human skills? The answer is yes.
Artificial intelligence (AI) will both complement and substitute for human skills. But the correlation to job skill levels and wages in either case may not be as clear cut as with previous technologies.
A skill complement example I often cite is the use of AI voice recognition technology to produce rough drafts of court proceedings. AI complements court reporters’ skills because it does the heavy lifting of the word-for-word transcription. And court reporters complement AI’s skills because they can do the higher-level work of ensuring the final transcript is cohesive and makes sense for the final record.
A skills substitute example is AI analyzing medical images to quantify the size of tumors and identify which areas are most aggressive. It’s a substitute for a specific skill that’s very time consuming and difficult for health professionals to do, as Dr. R. Jena, a Neuro-Oncologist at University of Cambridge Cancer Center in the U.K. says in this video demonstrating the Microsoft Inner Eye project. The Inner Eye project could make the process of ascertaining the extent of tumors 40 times quicker than doing so by hand according to this BBC story. What’s more, the detailed imaging analysis can provide decision support to help clinicians determine the most effective treatments, with the ultimate goal of improving outcomes for cancer patients.
In both scenarios, AI can help us do more. Court transcripts can be completed faster. And health professionals can spend less time analyzing medical images so they can spend more time on other aspects of patient care to meet the exponentially expanding need for health services resulting from rapid population growth and the rising incidence of chronic disease.
Empowering the workforce
Although technology always replaces some aspect of human labor, economists typically believe that doesn’t matter to total employment in the long run—because there are infinitely more things we would like done. So essentially, the economy always catches up. But it can matter to the distribution of income and the size of the middle class.
Sometimes there’s a lag time for workers if they don’t evolve their skills. That’s why economists favor job skills training. And it’s why I’m glad to be part of a company that’s working to make sure people aren’t left behind in this fourth industrial revolution. Microsoft offers a whole portfolio of programs and solutions to empower people with the future-ready skills they need to be gainfully employed in the digital age.
The key for workers is to make AI work for them—like the court reporters using AI-based transcription and doctors using AI for decision support.
A good example of making AI and machine intelligence work for them is a tool like Delve which can bring you information based on what you’re working on and who you’re working with. For example, Delve might show your team a recently-published report that’s relevant to a niche project you’re undertaking. In a world where there’s way too much information for anyone to keep up with, tools like Delve can provide the right information at the right time so people have the latest insight to excel at their jobs.
Another example of how technology can help people advance their skills comes from Case Western University, where they’re using Microsoft HoloLens to transform the way they teach anatomy and our understanding of the human body as they help to prepare the next generation of doctors.
How will we dig deeper and reach higher?
The bulldozer helped us dig deeper to build bigger buildings. How will AI help us dig deeper to reach higher? It can mine and analyze data faster than humanly possible. How will that advance our knowledge to help us do what we do better, plus come up with entirely new processes, services, and products that can benefit societies and economies?