Is artificial intelligence a threat to industrial jobs?

10 March 2020 4 min. read

Along with the hype surrounding artificial intelligence (AI) and its potential to make firms more efficient and productive, it faces continued scrutiny in relation to its impact on the jobs market. Cameron Batt from digital transformation consultancy Crum Consult reflects on how AI has affected the labour market in the industrial landscape so far.

Digital technology has long been discussed as a potential ‘game-changer’ in modern business, with artificial intelligence and automation having been heralded as ways for stagnating sectors to battle productivity gaps, save large sums of money in efficiencies, and improve security and customer experience in the process. As a result, investors have been diving into various pilot schemes in recent years – especially in manual labour intensive industries, which contain some of the easiest roles to automate.

This is not without controversy, however. While some researchers are concerned with the idea that super-intelligent machines may evolve past what their human creators intended them to do so, the chief worry about AI tools at present is that they will lead to swathes of lay-offs in industries like manufacturing.

At Crum Consult, we are researching to what extent AI will impact human jobs and workforces. In previous years it has seemed like AI would never be able to replace complex human jobs that require a deep level of interaction such as medical-related careers, although it seems like the bridge has been gapped.

Is artificial intelligence a threat to industrial jobs?

Until recently, AI machines have never been able to overcome changing environments and the inconsistencies that real world jobs present. Small changes in the environment such as wind and light conditions would render them useless at construction type jobs. However, thanks to firms like Covariant AI, there are now commercial robots that are trained in simulation in order to complete intricate tasks.

The first advanced robot that Covariant developed was a robot arm capable of sorting through equipment for German logistics firm Knapp. Once developed, Covariant carried out research that showed the robotic arm to be more accurate and faster at assortment than the human workers with years of experience.

The robotic arm is now a full time member of staff at Knapp, with Managing Director Dirk Jandura singing its praises, as the robot “doesn’t smoke, is always in good health, isn’t chatting with its neighbours, no toilet breaks;” not to mention the robot is cheaper than a human worker.

Beyond manufacturing

While this is alarming for workers in the logistic sector, those in other sectors might expect their roles are too complex for a robot to replace decades of human experience in. However, there is substantial evidence to suggest that is not the case.

An example of AI impacting jobs beyond manual-labour jobs comes from iHeartMedia, a radio broadcasting conglomerate. Earlier this year, the organisation announced it would lay-off hundreds of employees in order to “take advantage of AI.” This is a sizable restructuring at the company and we can expect to see AI technology in “every market” according to a representative at iHeartMedia.

The Bank of England has also taken time to issue information regarding the idea AI machines displacing jobs. The Bank of England first stated that growth in AI “means that more jobs will be done by machines,” although it followed this by stating that these robots will create new jobs for humans – something echoed by various reports since. The Bank also stated that lower skilled jobs such as sales and customer service have around an 80% chance of being automated, while higher skilled jobs such as managing directors and technical associated being unlikely to be replaced.

The four scenarios that tech experts such as Forbes researcher, Blake Morgan, are preparing for are the idea that displaced workers must be re-trained. Secondly, people whose jobs are replaced by AI can go to other jobs. AI creates jobs in itself that humans will be able to take up.

Finally, there is a more drastic idea that some researchers are proposing, is that in the not-so-distant future, not everyone will work. If AI and intelligent machines are the inevitable future, and will cost jobs which will not be replaced, it is essential we have conversations now about what to do with displaced workers and economic impact this further unemployment will have.