Walmart last month announced that shoppers soon might see a lot more robots in its stores -- but the company wasn't referring to toy robots or even human assistant gadgets that are available for purchase. Walmart's new robots will be taking over repeatable, predictable and manual tasks that up to now have been carried out by human employees.
At Walmart stores, robots will scan shelf inventory and track boxes as part of the retail chain's inventory management. Walmart is hardly alone in deploying robots or artificial intelligence to handle these mundane tasks, however. Amazon has increased the use of AI in managing its facilities, and in the not-too-distant future, many employees can expect to work side-by-side with such machines on a daily basis.
Roughly 36 million Americans hold jobs that have a high exposure to automation, according to a January report from the Brookings Institution.
Upwards of 70 percent of tasks done by human workers soon could be performed by machines. This shift could affect not only factory and retail workers, but cooks, waiters and others in food services, as well as short-haul truck drivers and even clerical office workers.
The timeline could be from the next few years to the next two decades, according to the Brookings study, but economic factors likely will play a major role. An economic downturn, which could compel corporations to seek ways to reduce costs, could result in layoffs, with workers replaced by machines. This has happened in past recessions, so it is safe to assume that the impact could be more severe with the next downturn.
What AI Means for Jobs
With AI and robots handling more "mundane" tasks, what happens to those who typically held those jobs? This is not exactly a new debate.
In the 19th century, the Luddites, a secret and somewhat radical oath-based organization of English textile workers, took to destroying textile machinery as a form of protest. Members of the group were born in the harsh economic conditions of the Napoleonic Wars. The group took its name from Ned Ludd (possibly born Edward Ludlam), and it became so strong that it even clashed with the British Army.
It is unlikely that the military, or even armed security, will have a confrontation with today's workers, but the echoes of concern over machinery replacing employees have been growing louder. Is the threat AI poses to workers real?
"The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a database that lists occupations broken out to tasks, and from this data we've seen tasks that are suitable for machine learning," noted Ramayya Krishnan, dean of Heinz College Of Information Systems and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, and president of Informs.
"What we have to remember is that a job is a role that consists of a bundle of tasks, so a job itself won't be replaced but some of the tasks may be," he told TechNewsWorld.
"It is important to make the distinction between the job itself and individual tasks that make up the job," said Megan Lamberth, researcher in the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).
"Tasks that involve routine cognitive or physical activity, like data-base entry or elements of secretarial work, will be highly susceptible to automation, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the entire job will be automated," she told TechNewsWorld.
Another example would be bank tellers who have had some of their tasks replaced by an ATM. "So the question isn't whether or not so much of an occupation will change, but how some of the tasks will be done via technology," said Heinz's Krishnan.
"Most jobs will be impacted in some shape or form by automation or AI, but a smaller percentage of jobs will be completely eliminated by these forces," warned CNAS' Lamberth.
"Different studies on the future of work have reached varying conclusions about the percentage of the American workforce that will be displaced by AI and automation," she explained. "A common conclusion exists in many of these studies: The scale of disruption will be vast, and we have to determine a way forward to manage this disruption."
AI to Retain Workers
The other end of the spectrum for AI is in how it could be used by employers to help retain workers, especially in a tight job market. AI is now being used by HR departments as a tool to help employers know if employees are thinking about leaving their respective position.
One example is IBM, which has replaced about 30 percent of its HR staff with AI. In this case it actually is to help retain existing skilled workers -- not to replace them with AI, but to ensure that valuable talent doesn't jump ship.
The HR AI was designed to help employees identify opportunities for new skills training, education, job promotions and raises. In other words, AI can predict why employees may be thinking of seeking greener pastures elsewhere. By addressing these issues, IBM can keep its workforce intact -- whether by adding a new skill or promoting a deserving worker.
One component of this is through the tracking of social media posts that can indicate levels of happiness in ways that a human might not see. AI can find patterns and determine if an employee is considering a job switch.
"AI is actually made up of four layers; and this includes a sensing layer where it can sense about an employee's mood or feelings. This can be a measure of motivation for example," said Heinz's Krishnan.
"From sensing you can learn, and then you can decide based on what you've learned to determine how you'll act," he added.
AI also could be used to aid in the recruiting process, but its use to retain or hire employees could come with ethical conundrums.
"The AI is capable of doing it, but it must be done in an appropriate way so that you don't cross any ethical boundaries," suggested Krishnan. "You want to make sure the AI isn't biased, just as humans in HR need to be free of bias."