Have no fear, AI is here — white-collar workers can dispel employment angst, study suggests
A study takes a closer look at the impact of artificial intelligence on employment rates across 23 developed countries. The results are not what you might think.
As recently as late last decade, for many a journalist, or journalism intern, a key part of the post-interview process involved time spent transcribing the interview; a process that can take hours depending on length and typing speed. These days, uploading the recording to a transcription app such as Otter.ai produces a relatively good transcript in a matter of minutes through the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning software. A recent update, rolled out in September 2022, comes with something called Otter Assistant “to join meetings on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet to take and share notes automatically.”
Users can also send this Otter Assistant to attend, record and transcribe online meetings that they themselves are not able to attend. This neat piece of AI now also promises to provide you with “a summary after your discussions, to help you navigate the conversation.” At the current rate of progress, it wouldn’t be entirely unreasonable to wonder how much longer before this artificially intelligent time-saving piece of software takes the next step and moves on from merely transcribing and creating a “summary”, to writing a perfectly passable piece of reporting; an artificially intelligent journalist if you will.
Concerns over how technological advancement might impact employment opportunities are not new, and the current wave of progress in the implementation of AI has once again brought them to the fore.
A study, titled Artificial Intelligence and published in December 2021 by the intergovernmental policy-focused Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), attempts to address those questions by analysing how AI has impacted industries where it has already been deployed, focusing on the period from 2012 to 2019 across 23 countries. Namely, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Slovenia, the Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom and the United States
Have no fear, AI is here
“Recent years have seen impressive advances in artificial intelligence, particularly in the areas of image and speech recognition, natural language processing, translation, reading comprehension, computer programming and predictive analytics. This rapid progress has been accompanied by concern about the possible effects of AI deployment on the labour market, including on worker displacement,” the study’s authors write, going on to explain that this wave of technological progress could have a different impact on employment in comparison to previous advancement.
They argue that past progress has been associated with automation of routine tasks, such as computers taking on record-keeping, calculation and searching for information. On the industrial side, task-oriented robots have taken on manual tasks, mainly substituting workers in “low- and middle-skill occupations.” Hence, those in what are perceived as high-skilled occupations that require abstract reasoning, creativity, and social intelligence,” were thought to be beyond automation.
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“The kind of abilities AI has made the most progress in are disproportionately used in highly educated, white-collar occupations. As a result, white-collar occupations requiring high levels of formal education are among the occupations with the highest exposure to AI: Science and Engineering Professionals, but also Business and Administration Professionals, Managers; Chiefs Executives; and Legal, Social and Cultural Professionals,” the authors explain.
However, they found that exposure to AI did not result in a drop in overall employment. In fact, across the 23 countries, in occupations with the highest exposure to AI, employment grew between 2012 and 2019, while actual working hours decreased in occupations with the lowest exposure, largely due to more people doing part-time work. Additionally, the growth in employment was not necessarily due to an increase in jobs that require AI-related technical skills.
“This is because job postings requiring AI skills remain a very small share of overall job postings. In 2019, on average across the 36 occupations analysed, job postings that require AI skills accounted for only 0.14% of overall postings in the United Kingdom and 0.24% in the United States. By contrast, across the same 36 occupations, employment grew by 8.82% on average in the United States and 11.15% in the United Kingdom between 2012 and 2019,” the researchers report.
They argue that while AI may have substituted workers regarding certain skills, it appears to have created more opportunities for workers with digital skills. This group is also likely to find it easier to use AI effectively in their occupations even though they do not necessarily possess AI-related technical skills. In some cases, the authors note that AI has led to higher productivity, thus lowering production costs, “which can lead to increased employment if demand for a product or service is sufficiently price elastic. This was the case, for example, for weavers in the industrial revolution.”
Notably, occupations with the highest computer use experienced higher employment growth during the period studied.
“AI applications relevant to these occupations include: identifying investment opportunities, optimising production in manufacturing plants, identifying problems on assembly lines, analysing and filtering recorded job interviews, and translation. In contrast, high computer-use occupations with low or negative employment growth were occupations with relatively low exposure to AI, such as clerical workers, and teaching professionals,” the study finds.
It is worth noting that while the study goes as far as 2019, much more progress has been happening since in AI. As of 2022, easily accessible AI software can now create visual art, videos, and summarise discussions; further expanding the number of occupations exposed to AI.
Old fears, new tech, and more inequality
Not so long ago, at the advent of the computer, some feared that automation would lead to major job losses. Sentiments such as these led James Bessen, an economist and lecturer at the Boston University school of law, to investigate the relationship between computer automation and jobs, looking as far back as 1980, and specifically at US data.
Among his findings, published in 2016, he writes: “Employment grows significantly faster in occupations that use computers more. At the sample mean, computer use is associated with about a 1.7% increase in employment per year… However, computer use is associated with growth in well-paid jobs and decreases in low-paid jobs, hence with a substantial reallocation of jobs, requiring workers to learn new skills to shift occupations.”
He adds that computer use is also associated with an increase in the “share of an occupation’s workforce with four or more years of college, even for occupations that do not require a college degree.” However, while computer automation has not led to an overall drop in US employment numbers according to his investigation, Bessen found it to be associated with greater wage inequality between those who have the necessary computer skills and those who don’t, “accounting for 45% of the growth in the wage gap between the 90th and 50th percentiles of the entire workforce since 1990.” DM/ML
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