Views on future of work are cautiously optimistic

July 28, 2019
Jason Sparapani, content manager, MIT TR Insights.

Technological advancement is reshaping jobs at companies today, with 86% of respondents to a recent MIT Technology Review Insights survey saying roles at their organizations have been changed and augmented to some degree by technology over the past year.

And despite concerns in the media and academia that fast-advancing AI and automation will steal human jobs, 60% reported zero lost jobs at work in the past 12 months, and 50% said head counts are increasing at their organizations.

The survey canvassed the Global Panel, a group of executives, entrepreneurs, and academics who share their views on technology with MIT Technology Review Insights. There were 429 respondents: 45% were from North America, 29% were from Europe, 17% were from the Asia-Pacific—the Asian continent plus Australia and New Zealand—6% were from Latin America, and 3% were from Africa and the Middle East. All values are approximate.

Human versus machine

As companies race to adopt AI and automation to enhance customer satisfaction, make faster, smarter business decisions, and improve operational efficiency, they’re dealing with another reality: that human jobs could be in the offing.

Indeed, while the results of the survey leaned toward optimism over increasing use of AI and automation in the workplace, with a majority saying technology hasn’t displaced jobs in their organizations, 40% reported that it has.

For the most part, though, the loss so far has been relatively small—27% of respondents said technology has taken less than 5% of jobs at their organization. Nine percent said 5% to 10% of jobs has been lost, and 4% reported that more than 10% of jobs has been replaced by technology.

Further, when respondents were asked in what direction their organization’s head counts were moving in, half said they were rising. Decreasing head counts were reported at the workplaces of 19% of respondents, and head counts were stable at 31%.

The only constant: Change

Though AI and automation may not be seen as unremittingly destructive, the survey suggests, it is introducing significant change. The vast majority of respondents say technology has changed and augmented jobs at their organizations. For instance, 29% of respondents said between 5% and 10% of jobs at their workplaces have changed because of technology, 28% said less than 5% of jobs have been modified, and another 28% said more than 10% of jobs have changed.

The majority of organizations that are using AI and machine learning to perform business tasks, 52%, see their head counts increasing, while 19% see them decreasing.

A big question emerging, as AI seeps into the workplace, is, Are organizations prepared for the changing nature of work? According to the survey, the answer is mixed. While 33% of respondents have plans in place to examine the impact of technology on work, 26% are developing such plans. That means that a majority, nearly 60%, are thinking strategically about the coming changes, leaving 41% of respondents in organizations without a plan.

Overall, though, respondents are thinking about the future of work. Asked what their organizations are doing to prepare for an AI-dominated future, 78% of respondents reported that their organizations are enlisting AI and machine learning into business processes—tasks traditionally done by humans. At first blush, it seems such a move would translate to a massive loss of jobs, but of the majority of organizations that are using AI and machine learning to perform business tasks, 52%, see their head counts increasing, while 19% see them decreasing.

Other preparatory measures focused on workplace training and hiring practices: 76% of respondents disclosed they are helping their employees acquire new skills, 70% are changing how they recruit for positions, and 55% are investing in diversity training, or programs designed to reduce prejudice and discrimination.

Problem solving ahead

Survey respondents cited a number of challenges associated with increasing AI and automation in the workplace. Number one among them was skills—86% said workers in an AI-dominated future will need different expertise than they have today. When asked which skills workers in their organizations would need as they prepare for the future, 44% of respondents reported digital skills, to operate ubiquitous machines and systems.

But respondents also thought workers will need to have skills that machines typically don’t have: adaptability (38%), emotional intelligence and higher cognitive skills (36%), critical thinking (36%), creativity (35%), leadership and managerial skills (25%), and complex problem solving (24%). Just 2% of respondents said physical and manual skills will be important in a future workplace.

Other challenges that lie before organizations preparing for a tech-laced future involved wholesale societal rearchitecting, with 68% reporting that educational systems will have to change to prepare people for work in the AI age, and 51% saying workplaces will need modification so that humans and machines can work harmoniously together.

Still other challenges that respondents cited pointed to technology’s potential to disrupt livelihoods. For example, 46% said companies, governments, and institutions will have to consider the ethical implications of AI and automation, and 22% reported that automation and AI could worsen wage stagnation, income inequality, and the lack of advancement.

This article was written by Jason Sparapani