Will Artificial Intelligence Fix (the Problems Confronting) Work? This is the theme of the latest report in the Microsoft series of annual Work Trend Index Reports. For this research report, Microsoft claims it surveyed 31,000 people in 31 countries. Additionally, it also analysed trillions of productivity-related signals from Microsoft’s own work and studied labour trends in LinkedIn profiles.
The Microsoft survey
The report begins by painting a gloomy scenario about the workplace mood in the digital age. No, it is not about the gradually gripping fear of losing one’s own job resulting from the generalized perception of massive job losses to be triggered by the AI. Rather, the report begins with a presentation of the sinking feeling gripping the modern workforce due to overburden of work.
Endless flow of data to grapple with, innumerable e-mails to attend to, countless meetings, and notification after notification from above — the deluge has outpaced humans’ ability to process it all. Work is turning into a nightmare. All those who work are hard-pressed for time. And they don’t seem to be having the needed energy. The torturous monotony is killing. It kills innovation and creativity, where creativity is the new productivity. The firm’s profitability suffers and so does the economy. Microsoft report has tagged it as ‘digital debt’.
After painting such a scary scenario, the report offers hope by painting a rosy picture — that AI would solve all such problems.
“AI can help to lift the burden … Organizations that embrace AI will unleash creativity and unlock productivity for everyone — ushering in a new wave of productivity growth and value creation,” the report reassures us. It even quotes Microsoft Chairman Satya Nadella as saying: “This new generation of AI will remove the drudgery of work and unleash creativity. There’s an enormous opportunity for AI-powered tools to help alleviate digital debt, build AI aptitude, and empower employees.”
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The Microsoft survey also found that while 49 per cent of surveyed people were worried that AI would replace their jobs, 70 per cent were keen on delegating as much work as possible to AI to lessen their workloads. Another 76 per cent would be comfortable using AI for administrative tasks, 79 per cent for analytical work and 73 per cent would use AI for creative work, and 77 per cent would use it for planning their day. AI thus symbolizes both the good and the evil for the workforce simultaneously.
Is AI the panacea that can cure all such ills that confront work?
What is the situation in India? How far AI has come into currency in different fields and what impact it is going to have on Indian workers and their work? Unfortunately, the report is totally silent on India despite including India among the countries surveyed. Still, to elicit answers for these queries, The Federal talked to some IT professionals as well as academics. We summarise their views below.
Rabinarayan Mohapatra, who was Senior Manager, Geology, in Hindustan Zinc Ltd. and who takes personal interest in AI use in mining technology, said: “Artificial Intelligence is transforming the global job market, and India is no exception. With its rapid advancements and increasing adoption across various industries here, AI has the potential to both create new jobs and displace existing ones.
“AI can lead to job creation in areas such as data analysis, machine learning engineering, robotics and software development. These fields require skilled professionals who can understand and work with AI technologies to create innovative solutions.”
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Regarding concerns about job displacement due to AI-driven automation, he stated that in India, “low-skilled jobs that involve repetitive tasks are at a higher risk of being automated in the days to come. According to a study by McKinsey Global Institute, around 9 per cent of India’s workforce could be displaced by 2030 due to automation. This could have significant implications for a country where millions rely on low-skilled jobs for their livelihoods”.
How serious a threat is AI to jobs?
Mona Das, a London-based NRI techie, feels that while technology keeps changing forever, jobs need not be lost at the same pace as many of them can be repurposed.
Another senior executive who was a vice-president in-charge of personnel training in one of IT biggies in India told The Federal: “An AI-proficient developer will replace someone who has not upgraded self on AI. Most of low-end jobs will be taken away by AI but almost an equal number of new jobs would get created by AI. Jobs that need human creativity would still exist but the creative talent would use AI powered tools to enhance their productivity. On the other side, repetitive operational jobs will get eliminated.”
Vaibhav Maini, a techie with HCL in NOIDA, says: “Upskilling is being bandied about but it seldom happens in India. Only ‘downskilling’, in the sense of forcing people with higher skills to do mundane low-skilled jobs, prevails.”
Will AI make work less burdensome and improve ease of working? Underlining the need to differentiate the impact on labour, on work and on the labour market, Siddhartha Das, teaching in IIIT, Hyderabad, says: “I think this Microsoft report is missing the elephant in the room. First, it admits that people are overworked. This after the corporate world and the governments asserting all these years that the Internet and computers would reduce the workload of individuals. However, it didn’t happen.
“Rather, people seem more stressed now. Now the report is drawing up a rosy picture that workers would benefit with the automated assistance of AI. This too is not going to happen. Technologies are updated with time. Similarly, work expectations from individuals who would be assisted by AI tech would also increase,” he says.
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Covid-19 vaccines clicked even without AI. But despite the use of AI-driven bots, the epidemic of rumours, fake videos, digital scamming and cybercrimes are on the rise and the work of curbing them has not become easier, he pointed out.
Limitations of AI
Microsoft decided to invest $10 billion more in installments in addition to $3 billion already invested in OpenAI. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said they could focus on improvising OpenAI only after laying off 10,000 serving employees. This only underlines the fact that Microsoft’s own AI systems have not delivered for proper human resources planning!
Professor Murugan, teaching in the Vellore Institute of Technology, says: “One application of AI-based systems like ChatGPT is that they can debug or generate codes for specific applications. In early stages, employees had used these tools to debug codes that they had written. But when you put a code into ChatGPT for debugging, it becomes part of the repository and hence the company might lose any proprietorship of the software. Hence, many companies have advised employees from using AI-based systems as a short-cut to manual debugging.
“But many software giants have developed/developing AI-based in-house systems that will do the job of software debugging and testing in a big way. This leads to genuine fear among employees that entire portfolios of software testing and de-bugging might get eradicated and many jobs would be lost because of such AI systems.”
Misuse of AI
Professor Harjinder Singh, from the Centre for Computational Natural Sciences and Bioinformatics of the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), Hyderabad, said: “Plagiarism cannot be checked in ChatGPT-generated documents. Questions of morality have been raised about even some science articles published in Nature and research papers presented in some reputed science conferences. Educational institutions are restricting the use of ChatGPT in writing research papers. Even at the school level, New York has taken the lead in banning the use of ChatGPT and other American cities are following suit.
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“ChatGPT can only recycle existing information and cannot generate something new in terms of creative research. Hence, while it can be used for writing good articles, cheating cannot be avoided,” he adds.
Policy Measures to be adopted by the government and industry to prepare for the AI age. The paradigm shift to AI calls for a new AI aptitude, the report says. As AI reshapes work, human-AI collaboration will be the next transformational work terrain, it points out. As per the survey, learning is not keeping up with the pace of work. Sixty per cent of the people feel that they are short of the skills needed for their work. Another 82 per cent of the employers, too, feel the same.
In such a backdrop, how can the governments and the industry prepare for the future, especially in India?
Mohapatra feels the governments in India and private organizations should invest in AI-related fields such as data science, machine learning and robotics. Investing in R&D too would help in driving innovation in adopting AI technologies in India. Social safety nets for those who lose their jobs due to AI that include re-skilling programmes are a must, he feels.