Is the fear of AI taking over the workplace justified?
- 20 Nov 2023
The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation has sparked a global conversation about the future of a human-based workplace. While these technologies promise efficiency and growth, they also bring a wide range of concerns for employees. These concerns span across many sectors, from manufacturing to services. Many employees have begun to ask the question “Will AI and machinery take our jobs?”
The reality of workers concerns
Over a third of workers (37%) believe automation will negatively affect their jobs, and 23% worry their roles might become obsolete. We can all agree that this fear of losing one’s job to a machine isn't unfounded. History is full of noticeable events where technological advancements have resulted in displacing workers. Today, AI and robotics are advancing at an unprecedented pace, capable of performing complex tasks from driving trucks to diagnosing diseases.
A report from the Wales TUC highlights that workers are often told "AI is cleverer than you" when they challenge these new technologies being introduced to their workplaces. A key concern here is the potential for AI to replace human judgment and decision-making in the workplace. Workers from various sectors, including retail, logistics, care, and health, express apprehension about job loss and the implications of constant surveillance by AI technologies. This fear is compounded by the lack of consultation with workers in some industries when introducing these technologies. It is not always clear if these technologies require human intervention or not. This is at the core of workplace anxiety around AI implementation.
Is the AI Revolution real?
Unlike past technological shifts, AI's potential extends beyond routine and manual tasks. Sophisticated algorithms can analyse data, make decisions, and even mimic human interactions. This versatility fuels anxiety, as it's not just blue-collar jobs at risk; even white-collar professionals are feeling the heat. AI can often offer some valuable interventions/suggestions however it is important to note that AI is by no means perfect and often misses the mark in some cases.
The Psychological Impact
Beyond economic implications, the threat of job displacement carries a significant psychological toll. Work is not just a means of survival; it's deeply intertwined with our identity and self-worth as many take pride in their careers. The prospect of being made 'obsolete' can lead to a sense of helplessness, diminishing self-esteem, and anxiety. There is an increased concern that people will have to start fresh in new careers in which AI has not yet made its impression. We are by no means there yet but many are assessing whether to pivot now or later.
What about if AI was a collaboration tool?
However, it’s crucial to balance this narrative. Many experts argue that AI and automation are not harbingers of job extinction but are tools for human augmentation. They suggest that these technologies can take over mundane, repetitive tasks, freeing humans to engage in more creative and strategic activities. AI can often offer some valuable interventions/suggestions however it is important to note that AI is by no means perfect and often misses the mark in some cases. A spokesperson from Rotec Engineering a leading CNC and 5axis machining company in the UK has said “New machinery and AI automation offers an opportunity to increase efficiency especially when in collaboration with real human control”. We think this is a fantastic insight as to how AI, machinery and human intervention can come together to limit risk and produce the best results for everyone.
Do workers need to reskill/upskill?
Despite these fears, 73% of workers are confident in their ability to update their skills in response to technological changes. The transition to an AI-driven economy necessitates a shift in skills. With a growing emphasis on skills that AI can't replicate easily, such as emotional intelligence, creativity, and complex problem-solving, reskilling and upskilling is becoming increasingly vital in preparing the workforce for future challenges.
Surveillance and Micromanagement as a result of AI integration
Electronic surveillance through AI and related technologies is becoming increasingly pervasive, causing significant discomfort among workers. For example, in local government, employees feel constantly monitored, even outside the office. In the healthcare sector, the digitalisation of patient records raises concerns about micromanagement and the reduction of patient care to mere numbers, potentially impacting the quality of care and staff autonomy. Questions are being raised regarding empathy, discretion and reactions to events that may require more than just a yes / no answer.
AI and Job Quality
There is potentially a growing distrust among workers about the manner and impact of AI rollout. Most workers favour government action to protect jobs and job quality, with only a minority believing that the benefits of AI will outweigh the costs. In sectors like social care and retail, algorithm-driven management approaches are leading to standardisation without considering the context. This one-size-fits-all approach raises issues of fairness and equality, as AI algorithms may not account for individual circumstances like disability or pregnancy. Furthermore, the line of decision-making and personal responsibility becomes blurred.
Redundancies as a result of AI adoption
There is no doubt AI and digitalisation hs already led to significant job reductions, particularly in the retail sector. We have all seen the rise of self-checkouts and online shopping which has dramatically reduced the need for sales assistants and checkout operators. This shift has not only led to layoffs but also to a gender imbalance in the workforce, with new roles in warehouses and delivery being predominantly male-dominated. These changes underscore the need for a balanced approach to AI integration, ensuring that job creation matches the pace of job displacement.
Government and Corporate Responsibility
The role of government, businesses, and unions in supporting workers during the rise of AI and automation is critical. Policies for education reform, vocational training, and social safety nets are essential. Companies must invest in employee development and create a culture where automation is seen as an enhancement, not a replacement. The tech sector and UK companies should join forces with the government to ensure the UK remains a global leader in an increasingly digital world.
The integration of AI and automation into the workforce is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to beat the expense of a human based workforce. By acknowledging employee fears, companies can begin to view technology as an enhancement rather than a replacement.. The future of work can be a collaborative symphony between human ingenuity and machine efficiency, rather than a battleground of man versus machine. AI offers efficiency whilst human control offers a deeper level of rationality and quality control.