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Generative AI: threat or opportunity?

The ways AI will change the future of work

Janine Berg, Economist with the International Labour Organisation (UN)
On January 10th, 2024 |
4 min reading time
Jeannine Berg
Janine Berg
Economist with the International Labour Organisation (UN)
Key takeaways
  • While generative AI worries workers, ILO economists have studied its impact on the global labour market.
  • The risk is not so much the massive replacement of jobs by bots, but rather the transformation of professions, which will affect 10-13% of occupations worldwide.
  • The professional category of low-skilled office jobs will be particularly affected by AI, since 82% of tasks could be entrusted to bots.
  • Women are particularly affected by automation, as they are twice as likely to be employed in these administrative positions.
  • AI will also increase inequalities, as low-income countries that do not have access to these technologies will have more jobs that could potentially be automated.
  • The current challenge is to support, organise and reflect on the deployment of AI to limit the social consequences.

Since the arrival of Chat­G­PT, there has been con­cern that we are going to be replaced by robots. Gen­er­a­tive arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, capa­ble of assim­i­lat­ing and cre­at­ing writ­ten, visu­al, or audio con­tent, is often described as a threat to jobs. With each new major tech­no­log­i­cal advance comes its share of debate and appre­hen­sion about impacts on the work­force. Dur­ing the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion, man­u­al work­ers were at the fore­front of these major changes. Con­verse­ly, AI is now more rel­e­vant to man­agers and pro­fes­sion­als. But what will be the real impact of this technology?

Togeth­er with Pawel Gmyrek and David Bescond, Inter­na­tion­al Labour Organ­i­sa­tion econ­o­mist Janine Berg analysed the 436 occu­pa­tions list­ed in the ILO’s Inter­na­tion­al Clas­si­fi­ca­tion of Occu­pa­tions. The aim was to under­stand which types of jobs would be most affect­ed by AI on a glob­al scale. The authors used Chat­G­PT to analyse the tasks asso­ci­at­ed with the occu­pa­tions and assigned them scores cor­re­spond­ing to their poten­tial expo­sure. Some tasks are high­ly exposed to tech­nol­o­gy, oth­ers less so. The high­er the expo­sure poten­tial of an activ­i­ty, the more like­ly it is to be automated.

For econ­o­mists, the pri­ma­ry impact of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence will not real­ly be the mas­sive destruc­tion of jobs, but rather the pro­found trans­for­ma­tion of work. For most pro­fes­sions, cer­tain tasks will indeed be car­ried out by bots, but this will leave time for oth­er, more com­plex activ­i­ties. On aver­age, 10–13% of jobs world­wide could be “aug­ment­ed” or trans­formed. The first jobs to use this tech­nol­o­gy will poten­tial­ly be ware­house­men, deliv­ery dri­vers, man­agers in the dis­tri­b­u­tion sec­tor, machine oper­a­tors and assem­blers, ser­vice and sales work­ers, dri­ving instruc­tors, dri­vers, wait­ers, archi­tects, teach­ers, musi­cians, etc. In all, 427 mil­lion jobs, or 13% of jobs world­wide, could change because of arti­fi­cial intelligence.

75 million jobs could be automated

Although the poten­tial for change is much greater than automa­tion, the risk remains very real, with 2.3% of jobs world­wide affect­ed. Admin­is­tra­tive jobs would be heav­i­ly impact­ed by automa­tion. “Call cen­tre employ­ees, sec­re­taries, data entry oper­a­tors – sim­ple, lin­ear activ­i­ties with lit­tle vari­a­tion in tasks and lit­tle inter­ac­tion with oth­ers – could be replaced by bots,” explains Janine Berg. In recent years, office work­ers have already seen their day-to-day work evolve. Accord­ing to the experts, 24% of their tasks are high­ly exposed to AI, and 58% are mod­er­ate­ly exposed. This is by far the occu­pa­tion most at risk. This means that 2.3% of jobs world­wide, or 75 mil­lion, could end up being automated.

Our study should not be read as a reas­sur­ing voice, but rather as a call to devel­op mea­sures to deal with the immi­nent tech­no­log­i­cal changes

Arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence will clear­ly not affect all pro­fes­sions in the same way. The tech­nol­o­gy is also like­ly to have dif­fer­ent con­se­quences for men and women. Women will be 2.5 times more affect­ed by automa­tion than men, not least because there are more women in low-skilled admin­is­tra­tive posi­tions. Con­verse­ly, male-dom­i­nat­ed pro­fes­sions such as secu­ri­ty, trans­port and con­struc­tion are unlike­ly to be affect­ed. As a result, 3.7% of wom­en’s jobs world­wide are at risk of being auto­mat­ed, com­pared with 1.4% of men’s jobs. This dif­fer­ence is even greater in rich coun­tries, with 7.8% of jobs held by women like­ly to be replaced by bots, com­pared with 2.9% of jobs held by men. In low-income coun­tries, few­er women are in the labour mar­ket, and low-skilled admin­is­tra­tive pro­fes­sions are pre­dom­i­nant­ly held by men.

Towards a productivity divide between countries?

The oth­er major dif­fer­ence point­ed out by the ILO econ­o­mists depends on the wealth of the coun­tries con­cerned. “In low-income coun­tries, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence is unlike­ly to be deployed. The tech­nol­o­gy is expen­sive, and there is a lack of infra­struc­ture, with a poor elec­tric­i­ty sup­ply and poor inter­net con­nec­tion”, explains Janine Berg. In fact, by 2022, a third of the world’s pop­u­la­tion will not have access to the inter­net. What’s more, the struc­ture of the labour mar­ket in low-income coun­tries makes them less sus­cep­ti­ble to automa­tion. In these coun­tries, 0.4% of jobs could be replaced by bots, com­pared with 5.5% in high-income coun­tries. In terms of pos­si­ble changes to jobs, 10.4% of occu­pa­tions are affect­ed in low-income coun­tries, com­pared with 13.4% in rich coun­tries. In short, poten­tial automa­tion main­ly con­cerns rich coun­tries. They will be more dis­rupt­ed by AI, but they will also be able to take advan­tage of it. “This sit­u­a­tion could cre­ate a pro­duc­tiv­i­ty divide between rich and poor coun­tries”, says the economist.

While there are nuances depend­ing on the region of the world, the study broad­ly envis­ages the inte­gra­tion of AI into every­day life. Replac­ing humans with bots is not on the cards for the time being. “This approach could have been expect­ed to gen­er­ate an alarm­ing num­ber of job loss­es, but is not the case. Our over­all esti­mate points more towards a future where work is in fact trans­formed, but still present”, the econ­o­mists sum­marise. How­ev­er, this evo­lu­tion of work must take cer­tain issues into account to avoid a neg­a­tive impact. “Our study should not be read as a reas­sur­ing voice, but rather as a call to devel­op mea­sures to deal with the immi­nent tech­no­log­i­cal changes”, explain the authors.

Thinking through and organising the deployment of AI 

Janine Berg believes that gen­er­a­tive AI is fun­da­men­tal­ly nei­ther pos­i­tive nor neg­a­tive. It all depends on how the tech­nol­o­gy is deployed. The econ­o­mist details a num­ber of actions that gov­ern­ments need to take: “reflect­ing on the ques­tion of the bal­ance of pow­er, the voice of work­ers affect­ed by labour mar­ket adjust­ments, respect for exist­ing stan­dards and rights, and the appro­pri­ate use of nation­al social pro­tec­tions, as well as train­ing sys­tems will be cru­cial ele­ments in steer­ing the deploy­ment of AI in the world of work.”

It is not just a ques­tion of observ­ing how this new tech­nol­o­gy is applied, but of sup­port­ing it with reflec­tion and mea­sures. The aim is to ensure social dia­logue, rede­ploy­ment or train­ing for employ­ees affect­ed by automa­tion, and employ­ee par­tic­i­pa­tion in the intro­duc­tion of AI for those whose tasks will be trans­formed. “If we don’t put mea­sures in place, and these sys­tems arrive, more jobs than nec­es­sary will be lost. Work­ing con­di­tions will dete­ri­o­rate. There may be short-term gains for some com­pa­nies, but there will be social con­se­quences,” warns Janine Berg.

Sirine Azouaouis

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