How AI and other technologies are already disrupting the workplace

Artificial intelligence (AI) is often portrayed as wreaking havoc and destroying jobs in reports of its growing use by businesses. The recent coverage of telecommunications group BT’s plans to reduce its number of employees is a good example.

However, while it is the AI ​​that grabs the headlines, in this case it is the switch from copper to fiber in the BT network that is the real story.

When I was a child, employees of the GPO – the General Post Office, the ancestor of BT – were regular customers in my parents’ newsagent’s shop. They rode in trucks erecting telegraph poles and repairing overhead telephone cables. Times – and technologies – have changed and continue to change. BT’s transition from copper to fiber optics is simply the latest technology transition.

This move by BT required a big one-time effort, which is coming to an end, along with the jobs it has created. And because fiber is more reliable, there’s less need for a labor force of field installers to make repairs.

This will change the shape of BT as an operation: rather than an organization of people in vans, it will have a network of designers and managers who, for the most part, will be able to monitor equipment in the field remotely.

This also happens in other sectors. Rolls-Royce aircraft engines are monitored as they fly from an office in Derby. Your office photocopier – if you still have a desk (or photocopier for that matter) – is probably also monitored automatically by the provider, without a technician near it.

“Co-piloting” of AI

AI can contribute in part to the reduction of customer service jobs at BT by being able to speed up and take over relatively routine tasks, such as screening calls or writing letters and emails to customers.

But it usually doesn’t take the form of a “robot” replacing a worker by taking over all of their work. Rather, they are artificial intelligence technologies that help human workers – acting as “co-pilots” – to be more productive in certain tasks.

This ultimately reduces the total number of personnel required. And, in BT’s history, AI is only mentioned for a fifth of the jobs to be cut, and even then only as one of the reasons.

In my own research of law and accounting firms with my colleagues James Faulconbridge and Atif Sarwar, very rarely do AI-based technologies simply make things faster and cheaper. Instead, they automate some tasks, but their analytical capabilities also provide additional insight into customer issues.

Better advice, new jobs

A law firm can use a document review set to find problematic clauses in hundreds of leases, for example. He can then use the global model of what is found as a basis for advising a client on the best management of his real estate portfolio.

Similarly, in auditing, AI technologies can automate the task of finding suspicious transactions among thousands of entries, but also generate insights that help the client understand their risks and plan their cash flow more effectively.

In this way, technology can enable law and accounting firms to offer additional advisory services to clients. The adoption of AI is also creating new types of jobs, such as engineers and data scientists in law firms.

Recent advances in generative AI – which create text or images in response to prompts, ChatGPT and GPT 4 being the most obvious examples – present new possibilities and concerns. No doubt they present potentially new capabilities and even, for some, “sparks” of general artificial intelligence.

These technologies will affect work and change certain types of jobs. But they are not the main culprit in the BT case, and researchers and journalists must keep a cool head and examine the evidence in each case.

We must strive to act responsibly when innovating with AI, as with any other technology. But also: watch out for the instinctive and sensationalist response to the use of AI at work.

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