(ORDO NEWS) — Artificial intelligence is getting better at all kinds of office tasks. This improves business efficiency, but can pose a threat to jobs.
First they came to the factories. Then they appeared in the service industry. Machines are now infiltrating the types of office work that were once considered the exclusive prerogative of humans.
The latest wave of automation builds on advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, which allow computers to perform tasks like speech recognition and make some decisions that used to be left to workers.
Unlike complex machines on assembly lines or kiosks where customers pay for groceries or order hamburgers, these are robots you don’t see.
The pandemic has increased demand for them. With soaring wages, a shortage of workers, and a near-record number of job openings, American businesses are racing to automate as much as possible.
“Technology adoption doesn’t really happen in a steady and incremental way. It happens in leaps and bounds,” says Mark Muro, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“There are spikes,” he says, believing that the US is going through this period now, given labor market tensions and advances in technology.
Data is difficult to obtain. But at earnings conferences this summer, executives from the Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch Co – talked about their investments in AI and other forms of automation.
It’s not just the corporate giants who are able to spend millions of dollars to develop their own technologies are getting in on the act.
One feature of the new wave of automation is the emergence of companies like Kizen that are making it affordable even for small firms.
Kizen, based in Austin, Texas, is launching an automated assistant called Zoe, which can perform tasks for sales teams such as conducting primary research and screening leads. Launched a year ago, the company has already sold over 400,000 licenses.
“Our smallest customer pays us $10 a month and our largest customer pays us $9.5 million a year,” says John Winner, chief executive of Kizen.
There are plenty of other ambitious companies that are taking advantage of this trend and seeing revenue surges – such as UiPath Inc., star investment manager Cathy Wood’s favorite, and Appian Corp. and EngageSmart Inc.
Along with the rise of AI and what economists call “robotic process automation” – essentially where software performs certain tasks previously performed by humans – the old automation also continues to evolve.
In the first quarter of 2022, the number of robots sold in North America reached a new record, according to the Association for the Advancement of Automation. The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2025 machines will work as many hours as humans.
What all these innovations mean for workers around the world is one of the key open questions in the economy.
According to the optimistic view, it is the tasks that are being automated, not all work – and if computers or robots can handle routine tasks, this will free up workers for more complex and satisfying work.
The flip side of the risk is that professions ranging from sales representatives to administrative support may begin to disappear, leaving no obvious alternatives for the people who made a living doing it.
This creates another employment threat for white-collar workers, who may already be vulnerable to an economic downturn, largely because many of them were hired during the boom of the past few years.
It is white-collar jobs that are at risk in the next recession.
According to MIT economist David Autor, a leading scientist in the field, the most likely outcome is both, with “there will be many winners and many losers.”
In particular, Autor warns in a recent paper, “computerization increases the productivity of highly educated workers by displacing the tasks of middle-skilled workers who, in many cases, previously performed these tasks of gathering information, organizing and calculating.”
These workers have been under pressure for a long time. Back in 2014, a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas found that routine, intermediate-skilled jobs like sales or administrative support have been in decline since the 1990s, especially during recessions.
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