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How Will A.I. Really Change the Way We Work?

Six experts on what’s next for A.I. in the workplace

Artificial intelligence. It's all around us and opinions about it are, too. American workers? They're unsure how A.I. will affect them.

Artificial intelligence, and the chatter about it, comes from everywhere. From apps on your phone to the antagonist in movie after movie to Common pacing your TV during every other commercial, you can’t escape A.I. — which, we know, sounds exactly like the plot of a movie.

But aside from the pop-cultural iterations, A.I., automation, and a sphere of related technological advances press in on us. An endless stream of books and articles. Conferences, like last year’s Atlantic Fest on the “future of work in the age of A.I.” Even government action: In February, president Donald Trump ordered an initiative to promote A.I. innovation. In all this, two dominant narratives play out: of promise and of concern.

The promise is for a smorgasbord of benefits for individuals and society. More reliability. Lower costs. A better world. The concern is for the social, even human, cost. Job loss among less educated workers. Desolvation of an entire class of the workforce, some fear.

To say most of us live somewhere in the middle isn’t quite right; in reality, most Americans seem to live in confusion and contradiction when it comes to the A.I. rise. Studies by Gallup suggests most American workers are both optimistic and unsettled by it.

More than three-quarters of Americans say A.I. will “change the way people work and live,” and overwhelmingly (77 percent) they think these changes will be positive. At the same time, about the same number of people (73 percent) assume A.I. will result in net job loss and (at a lower 63 percent) suspect that the jobs generated by A.I. will widen the rich-poor income gap.

In the workplace, you’re likely to hear truisms like, “Companies must learn to adapt.” But the workers who make up these companies aren’t sure how to pull that off. Less than 20 percent of workers in the study are “extremely confident” they will be able to “secure the training” to keep up. Basically, Americans seem to think the artificial intelligence boom will be good, but it will also take their jobs, perhaps irrecoverably.

The point is this: Odds are you’re thinking about A.I. and odds are you’re not really sure what to think. That’s why we talked to experts from a spectrum of perspectives and professions to help you think about the question, How will A.I. really change the way we work?

‘The expert and the A.I. will enter into a partnership.’

Artificial intelligence in the form of machine learning is going to be used in every phase of work, from making plans to evaluating the outcomes. In so doing it’s going to revolutionize our basic ideas about how we manage the future: Rather than always looking for broad trends and generalizations we can understand and apply, we’ll let the data speak, revealing the world as a massive, interdependent complex system composed of details and dust. This is an epochal change in our human self-understanding.
There will be disruptions, of course, especially for jobs that have depended on human intuition or some forms of expertise. Human intuition often is very unreliable. Where A.I. can avoid some of our prejudices and biases, we’ll quickly get used to using it. It will not be anywhere near as quick at replacing domain experts. In many cases, the expert and the A.I. will enter into a partnership, with the human asking the questions and deciding what to make of the answers.

David Weinberger is a researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. His new book, Everyday Chaos: Technology, Complexity, and How We’re Thriving in a New World of Possibility came out in April.

‘A global jobs crisis in the not-too distant future.’

I foresee a jobs crisis for humans at some point in the not too distant future. Because of that, variations of UBI (universal basic income) will be used by society to deal with the crisis. There will still be jobs for the creative people and those who are in management and technical areas. The unskilled will be most affected by the loss of jobs.
Automation is relentless; it cannot and will not be stopped. Even in countries like India where unemployment is much higher than the U.S., robots are replacing human jobs. Several things will be tried: The social safety net will be made broader. More money will be spent on education of the underprivileged and there will be pressure to bring down population growth faster.

Subhash Kak is the Regents Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Oklahoma State University–Stillwater. He writes about the future of technology.

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"Based on a survey of pastors and ministry leaders, 87 percent report being uninformed about the changes predicted in the workforce. Yet 60 percent of the same pastors expect A.I. to impact their constituents in the next five years. As a pastor or church leader, what can you do to move the body you lead forward in thinking about the future of work?"

Missy Wallace

‘The institutional church will need to rethink models of vocation.’

On the whole, I believe that the future has the potential to be a good one as we work together to participate in Christ’s redemptive purposes on earth.
That said, in the immediate future, the threat of A.I. is in automation. The best predictor in the world, the McKinsey Global Institute, postulates that by 2030, one-fifth of the global workforce will be affected by automation. And up to one-third of the workforce in richer countries could be replaced. Even if the reality is much smaller, such unemployment would likely represent the greatest job loss in the U.S. since the Great Depression.
With 57 percent of churches in the U.S. being under 100 members, and many already unable to support full time clergy — the impact of such unemployment could be catastrophic to the institutional church.
Beyond that, humanity will need to develop new understandings of our purpose related to work and creativity. We will need to more fully explore what it means to be made in the image of our creator God. And I suspect, more so than any generation ever in history, we will need to learn to become more vocationally adaptive than ever before.

Christopher Benek is the CEO of CoCreators, a nonprofit that trains organizations and individuals in technological stewardship, and a pastor.

‘A.I. presents an opportunity for the church.’

Research by my state’s economic development board suggests that in the next 15-ish years, up to 40 percent of the jobs in Tennessee will be eliminated due to automation. A recent episode of 60 Minutes suggests a similar number of job eliminations for our country as a whole. And despite the stereotype, there will be a significant effect on white-collar jobs. For instance, accountants are on the list of the top 10 job sectors expected to see 70 percent elimination due to A.I. But assuming we can find ways to help workers navigate provision and retooling, existential crises are what the church does best.
Despite the sobering facts about the largest job upheaval our generation will see, church leaders appear to be disengaged on the topic. Based on a survey of pastors and ministry leaders, 87 percent report being uninformed about the changes predicted in the workforce. Yet 60 percent of the same pastors expect A.I. to impact their constituents in the next five years.
As a pastor or church leader, what can you do to move the body you lead forward in thinking about the future of work?
The first step is understanding your context. How many jobs are expected to be lost and in what sectors? Which employees are retrainable versus not retrainable? Is it realistic for a career truck driver to retrain as a home health aid? Those who remain employed will also need help reconciling the changes. Understanding how to prepare our churches for the coming changes can feel overwhelming, but the church knows how to engage people around issues of identity and worth, though we have some ground to develop around provision and job counseling.
As our organization develops our career assistance competency, we are currently piloting a career discernment program with the VocaCenter in New York City. We are also piloting community groups for job seekers to assist with issues of loneliness and identity. Certainly we are not well prepared yet, particularly in the area of significant income disruption, but we see the issue looming and we’re beginning to address it.
What is a roadmap for preparing your church? As you analyze your own context, it is time to start the conversation.

Missy Wallace is the founder and executive director of the Nashville Institute for Faith and Work.

‘The wealthy in this economy need to become “restorative investors” in the future economy.’

The most important thing we can do to prepare for the future economy is to activate a sense of purpose in everyday people who are already pursuing the entrepreneurial path — both out of necessity and a desire for increased economic mobility. It is essential to equip more adults in our communities to develop their skills and talents into businesses that provide for their families, create jobs, and meet the deepest needs in their neighborhoods. Many of these individuals are also learning to leverage some of the same technologies that are changing the nature and availability of work to make their new jobs more financially and personally viable.
However, for this new, edifying world of work to emerge, those who have won wealth in the current economy need to see themselves as “restorative investors,” and support these entrepreneurs to repair the dislocation fueled by trends in technology and a changing world of work.

Alfa Demmellash is the CEO and co-founder of Rising Tide Capital. Her work addresses the challenges of the future economy center around an initiative called Future Tide Partners.

‘For individuals, continuous learning will need to become a reality.’

What A.I. and robotics are doing is forcing people to make the idea of continuous learning a reality. The era of having the same job for your whole life, or a very limited number of jobs, is over. Stable, long term employment will be more the exception than the rule.
There’s a need to make a cognitive shift in the way we think about work to one in which there is a shared responsibility between employers and employees to constantly be upscaling. And a lot of that burden is going to fall on workers. People have to take an interest in learning new skills and adapting to new technology — and build that into their life and career plans. This isn’t anything someone is going to do for you.
Retraining will no longer involve just signing up for a program. And it’s something you’re going to have to take responsibility for yourself: Be forward-thinking in your own life about how you can go about getting new skills, being attentive to the way the demands of the economy are changing.

Brent Orrell is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He previously worked for the U.S. Department of Labor in the ETA and as the director of the Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

This story is from Common Good issue
02.
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