The industrialized world’s future may hang on mankind’s ability to answer a single, deeply disturbing question--if thinking machines do most of the work, what do humans do? It is a problem without an obvious solution.
What is known for sure and confirmed by dozens of research studies and real-life experiences is that the widespread adoption of artificial intelligence and machine learning over the next few decades will have a profound and disruptive effect on workers in every industry around the world.
A new report titled “More Than Meets AI: Assessing the Impact of Artificial Intelligence on the Work of Government” from The Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that works to revitalize the federal government and the IBM Center for The Business of Government, sees difficult times ahead for government workers as well as AI takes root. From the report:
“AI is sure to change the composition of the federal workforce, creating new jobs related to managing AI systems or requiring critical thinking. Jobs based mainly on tasks that can be automated would likely be phased out, and employees would have to learn new or different skills for other jobs.
“Jobs based mainly on tasks that can be automated will likely be phased out, and employees would have to learn new or different skills for other jobs in order survive.
Just how disruptive will AI be to federal workers?
The analysis found more than 80 different federal occupations for which data shows there is substantial opportunity for job automation. More than 130,000 U.S. federal employees worked in these occupations in fiscal 2017, holding a wide-range of responsibilities from examining taxes and inspecting food to scheduling cargo and operating cranes. Multiply those numbers by the government workforce of major countries around the world and you’re talking about millions of people whose jobs and lives will be greatly disrupted in the coming few decades. According to the report:
Ten or 20 years from now, a federal workday is likely to unfold differently than a workday today. An AI transformation is expected to start with the automation of repetitive tasks, freeing up employees’ time to focus on mission-critical work. In the long term, however, AI will change the nature of jobs and how humans work alongside machines.
The report notes that the changes brought on by AI will not be the first substantial disruption of the federal workforce. In 1985, 19 percent of full-time federal employees held clerical positions. In 2017, they constituted just 4.3 percent in the workforce, according to Office of Personnel Management data. During those years, desktop computers and other technologies automated many clerical tasks, and new employees were hired to deliver programs in newly created agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security.
Based on that experience, whatever changes AI brings will not be immediate but an evolution that will play out over years and decades. Still, the report suggests that leaders and managers should begin preparing their employees now for the inevitable changes to come:
Leaders should communicate with employees early and often about the potential of AI to disrupt and alter their work. Leaders and managers should learn from early adopters of AI, such as the U.S. Coast Guard, NASA and the Department of Health and Human Services.
They should find out the extent to which the workday changed for employees, what types of agency work AI helped these organizations accomplish, which tasks were automated successfully, and what kind of work employees might start doing in place of current, repetitive tasks that AI could perform.
What jobs are likely to be most impacted?
Some agencies are more likely than others to be significantly impacted by AI in the near-term future. The research shows that more than a third of the Treasury Department’s staff (36%) are in occupations that would be affected by technology. The Government Publishing Office (28%) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (22%) also have considerable room to use AI in select occupations.
Like all the industry-friendly studies and optimistic pronouncements you see these days about the impact of AI on lower skilled workers, this one is filled with cheerful prattle about how AI will allow machines to handle routine jobs and allow people to perform more meaningful and interesting work, spend more time working directly with customers, perform other mission-related tasks and even learn new skills related to managing AI systems or requiring critical thinking. Another recommendation of the report:
Federal employees should receive training that emphasizes skills for handling interactions with agency customers with the help of AI. “Social literacy” entails skills such as active listening, communication, critical thinking, negotiation, persuasion, reading comprehension and writing. These skills will become more important as employees are able to spend more time with customers.
At the moment, there is no cross-agency strategy or plan to retrain those workers whose jobs are at risk to AI to provide them with the technical, digital and data literacy they will need to survive. Although it’s not specifically mentioned in the text—I suspect deliberately—there is a chart that shows more than half of the at-risk workers are over 50. This is a predictable and possibly avoidable human tragedy in the making.