The world of work is changing rapidly due to advancements in AI, stoking concern and even protests from skeptics of the technology. But we should be realistic about the scale and the benefits of the coming AI-powered industrial revolution.
Instead of resisting change, we must learn from centuries of progress and examine the possibilities afforded by AI in the workplace. Just as the original Industrial Revolution contributed to significant improvements in income and standards of living, the explosion in the use of AI at work appears likely to have a similarly transformative impact.
Why are people concerned?
The scale of AI’s impact on the world of work is undeniable. But what is hotly contested is whether it will have a positive or negative impact. Advocates of the technology point to the elimination of manual labor as a powerful enhancement in the world of work, clearing the way for more time spent on creative tasks and interacting with colleagues.
But there are many who fear the widespread destruction of jobs due to AI, believing that it will see programmers replaced by bots that crawl the web for AI-generated coding fixes and artists replaced by image generating software.
Before we jump to the conclusion that AI will destroy jobs, we should first look back at the largest ever technological shift in the workplace and the lessons that we can learn from it.
Ulrik Stig Hansen is President and co-founder at computer vision company, Encord.
The Industrial Revolution built our modern workforce - it didn’t destroy it
Consider the original Industrial Revolution which began in the UK in the eighteenth century. The widespread adoption of industrialization ended centuries of reliance on producing goods and materials by hand, with water and steam power increasing factory outputs dramatically.
As new technologies including the use of chemicals in manufacturing and the invention of machine tools became widespread, many workers feared for their jobs. In the nineteenth century, Luddites staged protests against the new technology, in some cases physically destroying what they saw as their mechanized replacements.
It’s easy to see why these fears emerged at the time, but we can now look back and see how the use of new technologies changed the world of work for the better, creating a middle class and raising standards of living. Economist N. F. R. Crafts has calculated that income per person in Britain doubled from $400 (in 1970 US dollars) in 1760 to $800 in 1860.
The AI industrial revolution will create new job opportunities
The current industrial revolution in the workplace, caused by AI, is thankfully about the evolution of soft skills rather than hard labor. It involves the implementation of natural language models and machine learning rather than steam power and automatic cotton spinning machines.
While AI has and will continue to automate many workplace tasks, crucially it presents opportunities for job transformation rather than elimination.
Mundane workplace tasks can now be automated, freeing up the human workforce for higher-value activities that require creativity and critical thinking. Investment analysts can use AI to automatically analyze prospective investments, freeing up their time to come up with potentially lucrative investment strategies.
And artists can spend their time inventing new frontiers of creativity instead of carrying out the manual labor of painting or printing similar images. Andy Warhol’s famous New York studio, The Factory, relied on his friends to produce endless variations of his work. Now, artists can use AI software to set up their own Factory overnight.
This shift opens up new avenues for fulfilling and intellectually stimulating work, while the replacement of repetitive labor should also drive economic growth.
AI as industrial rocket fuel
Beyond removing manual labor, AI also promises to maximize industrial output and research. In medicine, AI is already helping with diagnostics, drug discovery, and increasingly personalized treatments, revolutionizing healthcare outcomes.
Meanwhile in engineering, AI facilitates design optimization, predictive modelling, and automation, propelling advancements in various fields.
Furthermore, AI is empowering entrepreneurs and startups around the world by levelling the playing field and reducing barriers to entry. The accessibility of AI tools and resources enables rapid prototyping, experimentation, and iterative improvement, enabling startups to develop innovative solutions with limited resources – quickly.
This democratization of technology fosters a culture of innovation, where even small teams can have a significant impact on their respective industries. Yes, fears of job losses abound, but we cannot overlook the potential for job creation amongst this innovation.
Entirely new industries will be created as AI unlocks job roles we’ve never considered before. There are already hundreds of vacancies for prompt engineers on job boards as companies seek out AI-savvy people who are skilled at composing exactly the right combination of words to generate art, music and text.
How we can shepherd in an AI industrial revolution
Governments, corporations, and individuals all have a role to play in shepherding a positive shift in the way we work.
Forward-thinking regulation is vital. Kneejerk attempts to water down the implementation of AI in the workplace risk slowing down or stopping innovation entirely. Instead, governments must work in dialogue with innovators to craft regulation that helps AI to move forwards responsibly.
And in the corporate realm, businesses should embrace the creation of codes of ethics for their use of AI. Simply plugging the technology into existing systems with limited visibility into how it operates is a non-starter, sure to generate protest. Instead, companies should document exactly where AI operates. If it’s used to process the resumes of jobseekers, for example, this should be communicated.
And for individuals hoping to find their place in a workforce transformed by AI, openness to change is key. Luddites are known to have used hammers to smash the technology they viewed as eliminating their livelihoods. So instead of protesting against all AI development, individuals have a responsibility to seek out information on how this work is being carried out.
By cultivating a growth mindset and being open to acquiring new skills that will allow them to work alongside and benefit from AI, employees have a rare opportunity to get ahead of a significant technological change.
The AI-powered industrial revolution is coming, and arguably has already arrived. It’s time to harness its potential and explore how we can all be a part of it.
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Ulrik Stig Hansen is President and co-founder at computer vision company, Encord. Ulrik started his career in the Emerging Markets team at J.P. Morgan and holds an M.S. in Computer Science from Imperial College London.