Chill out: AI won't steal jobs, says consortium of AI-building tech giants

While the consortium’s aims of ‘building an inclusive workforce with family-sustaining opportunities’ seems reasonable enough, beneath the statement is an implicit acknowledgement that AI will replace certain workers in near future. — Reuters

Scanning through the all the technology news headlines focused on artificial intelligence, it's hard to know what to think. Some people may warm to the ideas espoused by an MIT professor who thinks AI will boost the labour market, though at heart, they may have a sneaky suspicion that AI really will steal plenty of people's jobs – just like the International Monetary Fund warned.

Sceptics may find a jolt of support when considering recent statements from a new consortium formed by top tech companies and consulting firms to tackle the impact of AI in the workplace.

Microsoft, Google, IBM, Intel, network hardware company Cisco, job-finding website Indeed, plus the global consulting firm Accenture and a few other entities have formed what they call the "AI-Enabled Information and Communication Technology," or ICT, "workforce consortium." IBM's business-speak heavy press release says the group's plans are all about "exploring AI's impact on ICT job roles, enabling workers to find and access relevant training programs, and connecting businesses to skilled and job-ready workers."

The goals of the consortium appear wholesome, since it wants to help "build an inclusive workforce with family-sustaining opportunities." But underlying these words is a tacit admission that AI really is going to replace some humans in the workplace – soon.

This much is made plain by the first phase of the group's plans, which will evaluate how "AI is changing the jobs and skills workers need to be successful," and culminate in a report "with actionable insights for business leaders and workers."

Speaking to website TechCrunch, a spokesperson for the group explained that this phase will look at 56 different information technology job roles (it hasn't yet disclosed which ones) that include "strategic" jobs and roles that offer "promising entry points" for lower-skilled workers.

IBM's press release quotes Cisco's executive vice president and chief "people, policy, and purpose" officer, Francine Katsoudas, who said that as AI speeds up the "pace of change for the global workforce" it also presents "a powerful opportunity for the private sector to help upskill and reskill workers for the future."

That may indeed ring true: When a sea change hits an industry on a large scale, there will indeed be plenty of opportunity for third-party companies to make money retraining some of the displaced workforce to give them new skills. Consider the arrival of the word processor in the 1970s and '80s, and all the "powerful opportunity" seized by educational consultancies to retrain typists to work on computers. The workforce become more computer literate, but only at the expense of the typing or "secretarial" pools that once occupied whole floors of big companies.

Also quoted is U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, who says she's "grateful to the Consortium members for joining in this effort to confront the new workforce needs that are arising in the wake of AI's rapid development." But what exactly is the plan that the consortium group – made up partly of tech companies that are busy building ever-more-clever AIs – has in mind that pleases Raimondo?

It's all about an effort to train and "reskill" people on a massive scale. The training programs consortium members have in mind will attempt to "positively impact" more than "95 million individuals around the world over the next 10 years." That, assuming it's backed by billions of dollars of investment from big tech names and government bodies around the world, seems admirable.

But AI critics will question if 95 million reskilled jobs is enough, especially given the massive and ongoing layoff rounds that are hitting multiple job sectors at the moment. The other question, of course, is if millions of people will actually want to "reskill," even though their employment prospects in an AI-dominated world may depend on it. – Inc./ Tribune News Service

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