People have long feared that technological innovation and progress could negatively affect their work. As history has proven time and time again, such concerns are far from unfounded.
For example, in the early 1900s pinsetters manually reset bowling pins after a successful hit. By the 1950s, automated pin placement technology had rendered this role almost obsolete. The same is true of the switchboard operator position, a physically and mentally demanding career that has been increasingly automated since the 1930s, leaving thousands to find alternative work.
The list goes on: warehouse and production workers, travel agents, bank tellers, clerks of all kinds. In the US, the Bureau of Labor Statistics regularly tracks the fastest-declining jobs, many made redundant by automation and invention. Will humanity’s eternal desire for progress eventually lead to mass unemployment? Or, as has happened in the past, will it simply open up other avenues for future workers to explore?
The rise of the digital worker
Until recently, the term “digital worker” simply described an actual person with some digital skills. But in this context, the term refers to a programmed or programmable “employee” designed to help people achieve their work goals more efficiently and sustainably. Through the use of machine learning and intelligent coding, these digital workers can—and already do—play an important role in a range of business functions and activities in areas such as accounting, facilities management, and even writing. Ideally, these digital workers would streamline procedures and free up human colleagues to focus elsewhere.
Dozens of companies already use AI technology on a daily basis and according to Andreas Cebulaa sociology professor specializing in the future of work at Flinders University in Australia, digital workers are likely to become more common in businesses as their opportunities expand – as long as they keep the bottom line.
“A business will only adopt a new technology when it offers profit gains. It’s about profitability, not productivity, although the two are not mutually exclusive,” says Cebula.
This is a point supported by Ying ZhouProfessor of Human Resource Management at the University of Surrey in the UK. She is also the director of the university Center for Research on the Future of Work and co-author of Mapping Good work: The quality of working life in the professional structure.
“New technologies have the potential to transform work for both better and worse,” says Zhou. “The impact can vary depending on the type of technology and the type of work. Key benefits for employers include increased productivity and lower labor costs. Unlike humans, AI, robots and other digital technologies do not need rest and can be used to work around the clock. The decreasing cost of computerized technology over time also makes it more attractive than wage labor.”
However, according to Zhou, “these benefits can come at a significant cost to workers,” and suggests that the negative impacts can be more pronounced and profound than simply people losing their jobs.
“There is an obvious risk of technological unemployment – jobs being taken away from people by technology – but also digital technology can be used to increase the surveillance of workers. Increased monitoring, evaluation and control of workers can lead to an erosion of job autonomy, which is important for employees’ work motivation and personal well-being,” she notes.
Cebulla is also keen to emphasize that while digital workers and AI can certainly help businesses become more efficient and productive, there are various negatives that need to be addressed and evaluated.
“As with most things in life, digital workers have their pros and cons,” says Cebula. “Digital workers can make work safer, cleaner and can improve outcomes. Accuracy and speed (as well as performance, health and safety) are the most likely benefits. However, an often overlooked downside is the risk of complacency. We can ‘trust’ the digital worker, but it can play by its own rules.” Or the rules that AI follows can be subverted, with dramatic and unwanted results.
In 2016, Microsoft’s chatbot called Tay, launched to try to engage millennials through the use of artificial intelligence, was shut down after just 48 hours after Twitter users “taught” him to be racist. BlenderBot 3 Meta’s AI chatbotreleased in 2022, became embroiled in a similar scandal just days after its release.
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So while it is clear that digital workers and AI technologies are being implemented and developed across all sectors – with varying degrees of success – they are actually ‘stealing’ people’s jobs, or should we see them as playing a vital role in supporting work place people efforts?
The future of employment
According to a 2019 report by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), using data collected in 2017, just 7.4 percent of UK jobs. are currently at “high risk” of automation. Interestingly, a similar ONS survey conducted in 2011 concluded that 8.1 percent of jobs were at high risk of being replaced by technology, meaning that the risk has slightly decreased over time.
But these data do not reassure everyone. In 2021 University College London (UCL) study found that more than half of 16- to 25-year-olds fear both the future and their job prospects, while a 2019 survey conducted by CNBC revealed that 27 percent of workers surveyed were concerned , that technology will eliminate their jobs in the next five years. The same survey found that 37 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 experience the same anxiety.
However, Zhou believes that while automation and technology will lead to certain roles requiring less human input in the future, this should not necessarily be seen as a negative.
“Throughout industrial history, we’ve seen significant shifts in skills in response to technological developments,” Zhou notes. “Overall, the technological revolution tends to increase the skill requirements of the workforce.” A study shows that in many European countries and the USA, the growth of information and computer technology was accompanied by a significant expansion of professional and managerial occupations and a reduction in low-skilled jobs.
“We are yet to see the full impact of AI/machine learning/robotics on the labor market,” says Zhou. “But it seems likely that employees will be required to develop higher levels of skills as a result of this wave of technological development than in the past.”
Cebulla believes that if businesses are so inclined, increasing digital workers could lead to more dynamic workplaces and encourage creativity across departments.
“Business models can be envisioned that allow workers to be redeployed to different and more innovative activities, but only if that’s the way the business wants to go,” he says. When resources are channeled into creative and innovative activity, it should benefit the company. “This should generate a new impetus for growth and development,” he says.
Ultimately, Zhou says, the implementation of technology and automated processes can and potentially will play a major role in creating jobs that will stimulate people’s minds and make their work lives more fulfilling.
However, Zhou also notes that it needs careful consideration when it comes to the future of the workplace, and acknowledges that there will be hurdles that some people will have to overcome. “Not everyone will benefit from these trends,” she says. How to help these workers develop the skills they need to move into higher-skilled jobs will be a key question for researchers and policymakers in the coming decades.