AI buoyed businesses during the pandemic, and could accelerate permanent change

IPSoft found that most businesses plan to return furloughed workers to their jobs, but many think AI will change or eliminate those positions within the next two years, white-collar included.

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A survey of US business leaders has found that 71% of businesses intend to bring back workers furloughed during the COVID-19 pandemic, but 64% predict their organizations will replace 31% of their employees with artificial intelligence (AI) or positions in service to AI in the next two years. The data was compiled by IPsoft, developer of the enterprise conversational AI platform Amelia. The pandemic, IPsoft learned, led to 88% of businesses with 500 or more employees adding or scaling up their use of AI. 

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“AI has been so effective at bolstering operations during the pandemic that 82% of respondents said they intend to use AI and other emerging technologies to hedge against reopening to full capacity in 2020,” IPsoft said. Among organizations in the financial sector that number jumps to 91%, and IT and telecoms places it at 83%. 

COVID-19 drove AI adoption in several particular types of positions, mainly those that address immediate needs: Answering calls, data analysis, IT services, HR services, customer risk and eligibility assessment, and contactless intake calls ranked as the top applications of AI during pandemic shutdowns. 

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Many of the positions taken over by AI during the pandemic encompass lower-level business functions, but white-collar mid-senior level employees shouldn’t feel safe, either: 40% of businesses introduced AI during the pandemic that was designed to perform those types of tasks as well.

These numbers give credence to the oft-mentioned fear of AI-induced job loss across various industries, IT included.

IPsoft found that 91% of executives said they do consider how AI will impact existing employees before implementing or scaling it. Ninety-three percent said, however, that workers skilled in managing AI or its outcomes are a growing need, and it’s likely it’s those types of jobs that will be created as the above mentioned 31% of traditional positions are eliminated. 

“While AI has served as a stopgap and an aide during the pandemic, business leaders recognize that AI is here to stay and will play an even greater role in the workplaces of the future,” said IPsoft CEO Chetan Dube. 

Thirty-eight percent of respondents said they are planning to launch programs to retrain current employees to bridge AI skill gaps, with most saying they’d prefer to retrain people in IT, finance, HR, marketing, and communications (in descending order of preference). 

That’s not to say there won’t be a net loss of jobs. Experts have said that AI will eliminate jobs, and while some will be replaced, it will be in favor of “AI managers” who, much like machine operators of the industrial revolution, are capable of doing the work of several people with their new tools. 

Dube said that the next few years will be a corrective period in human history where there’s a fundamental shift in the way businesses operate. That doesn’t mean there won’t be an entirely new market that springs up to support AI and the work it does, but it may not be in a way we recognize yet, he added.

“The car made the horse and carriage obsolete, eliminating the role of the horse and carriage driver, but it also introduced new jobs, such as technicians to raise traffic signals and civil engineers who plan our new automotive cities. This research shows that business leaders are already beginning to see what’s on the other side of the horse and carriage, and they expect to arrive as early as 2023,” Dube said.

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