PwC is the latest organization to attempt to answer the question on everybody’s mind: Is AI going to make us obsolete? And if so, will AI and intelligent systems open new job opportunities? What will be the ratio between jobs lost vs jobs created? All speculations are possible. Economists, philosophers, politicians, scientists, gurus, captains of industry and most of us have made the wildest predictions.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy said: “The major challenge of the sixties is to maintain full employment at a time when automation is replacing men.” We could reuse the exact same statement, change the decade and replace “automation” by AI and robots. In the past, the various industrial revolutions and the increase in automation did not result in long-term unemployment, but rather reshaped the job market landscape. Will it be different this time?

Despite humans’ positive track record of adapting to automation and changes, History is unfortunately not always a reliable guide to the future. In today’s world, most people worry about the huge job displacement that AI could trigger, as well as our capacity to reinvent ourselves. However, a group that has a positive outlook about the impact of AI on the job market is the research team at PwC. Their latest report is probably the most optimistic of all, claiming that in the UK, AI will create as many jobs as it displaces by boosting economic growth.

In fact, according to PwC, over the next 20 years, there would even be slightly more job created than displaced: 7.2 million vs 7 million. The number of assumptions made to arrive at that figure is mindboggling. Fortunately for PwC, they are on safe ground as in 20 years no-one will be around to remind us of the validity of that report. Even being able to measure retrospectively what has been created or displaced as a result of AI seems a complicated task.

One could question who is financing such reports, who is behind the scene. Is it just PwC willingness to predict the job market, or is there more to it? It is just a bit odd that serious organisations such as PwC would come up with very accurate predictions on such a complex question to answer. The conclusion of this report is certainly advantageous for the AI giants’ PR, who want to reassure the world that AI is not dangerous for the job market.

When we dig into the figures of that report, we find that most of the jobs disappearing will be in manufacturing (-25%), transport and storage (-22%) and public administration (-18%) whereas the winners will be in Health (+22%), professional, scientific and technical services (+16%) and education (+6%).

To summarize, low to medium qualification jobs will disappear, and jobs requiring higher education will be created. It sounds logical, but this positive outcome assumes that we will be able to hugely increase the qualification of the workforce, implying massive investment in higher education. If this report is half correct, the government should make education its number one priority.

And what will happen beyond the PwC 20-year time frame? Jim Breyer, the billionaire venture capitalist who was an early investor in Facebook, said last year: “When I visit campuses and speak to the AI experts, there is a median year of 2050 where they think the self-learning capability of AI will be singular and will be at human-level intelligence”. As for Elon Musk, the doom and gloom preacher of the AI world, he said: “Robots will be able to do everything better than us”.

Meanwhile, predictions on the impact of AI and intelligent systems on the job market are pouring in from all directions. The MIT Technology Review recently started tracking the various organisations that have produced reports and predictions about job displacement and creation as a result artificial intelligence and robots. The 15 organisations listed include Gartner, McKinsey, The World Economic Forum, and the OECD. For a recap table on those predictions and links to each individual report, visit Erin Winick’s January article in the MIT Technology Review.

The spread and divergence of those forecasts are so wide that it highlights the complexity of the task, if not the sheer impossibility of making any reliable prediction beyond the obvious and anticipated radical shift in the employment market.

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