We’re only a couple of weeks into 2024, but one thing’s already clear — the next 12 months will be the year when artificial intelligence (AI) moves from the margins to the mainstream.
While some companies have been using AI and machine-learning technologies to boost operational performance for several years, fewer organizations so far have found ways to put generative AI tools, such as ChatGPT and Microsoft Copilot, into production.
However, you can expect that trend to change as more organizations explore and exploit generative AI during the next 12 months, says David Brodeur-Johnson, principal analyst at Forrester, to ZDNET.
“2024 will be the year that firms get serious about applying generative AI to their own internal data sources and making information and insights available to their employees to help them do their jobs even better.”
Additional research from Digitate suggests 90% of IT decision-makers across all sectors plan to implement automation in the next year, with 56% expecting to make significant progress in IT organizations during the next six months.
But while employers are looking to introduce automation, many of their employees fear that increased use of technologies like generative AI and machine learning is far from good news.
Forrester’s research suggests as many as 86% of US employees fear that many people will lose their jobs to AI and automation, and almost a third (31%) believe that trend will manifest during the next two to five years.
Digital leaders responding to a global survey from recruiter Nash Squared come to similar conclusions, with 17% being the average percentage of jobs that digital leaders feel will be lost to automation.
Bev White, CEO at Nash Squared, tells ZDNET in a one-to-one video chat that the increased use of AI will lead to big changes in the job market, but it’s important not to jump to conclusions just yet.
She says the story of the introduction of automation — from the Industrial Revolution through to our present digital age — has always revolved around fears that jobs will be cut.
While AI and automation will lead to the end of some roles, the tools should also help change many workplaces and work roles for the better. White refers to software development and quotes research that suggests developers who use GitHub Copilot complete tasks 55% faster than developers who don’t.
The same research found between 60% and 75% of developers report that using generative AI tools as part of their roles leaves them feeling more fulfilled, less frustrated when coding, and able to focus on more satisfying work.
“Emerging technology is speeding things up,” says White. “It’s taking human processes out — which are repetitive, and actually not necessarily interesting for a human being to do — and replacing them with automated ways of doing things faster.” Even with increased levels of automation, companies will still need a human in the loop to ensure processes are completed effectively, such as dealing with more complicated customer service requests. And White says the tactical deployment of AI and automation should mean professionals in all kinds of roles have an increased opportunity to focus on crucial business areas.
“People will be able to do things, not only faster, but more cheaply and they’ll actually spend more time on the human elements — the thinking time, the decision-making time — that are essential to value-added processes.”
That’s a sentiment that resonates with Ben Elms, chief revenue officer at internet connectivity specialist Expereo, who says it’s important to remember that almost every implementation of technological innovation comes with a side order of fear.
“If you approach AI as, ‘It’s going to change the world, and it’s going to put people out of jobs,’ well, it isn’t — it’s actually going to create even more opportunity and jobs,” he says.
Elms says that the key to success is applying AI to the right use cases and he gives an example from his own company, which is based on the resolution of customer service requests, many of which require a standard answer.
“These are highly repeatable tasks,” he says. “These requests are text-based and many of the answers can be served effectively by AI quickly. That capability means people can come out of the service function, I can give them more training, and they can be frontline people, enhancing the customer experience.”
Hari Ramamurthy, technology fellow at The Home Depot, is another business leader who believes AI and automation can help workers to focus on more interesting work.
“We definitely see it as something that will improve the productivity of our associates and help them with the laborious, monotonous aspects of what they’re working on,” he says. Ramamurthy explained to me recently how the retail giant has developed a machine learning-powered app, known as Sidekick, to boost staff productivity.
The app, which also uses computer vision, helps shopfloor staff identify items in hard-to-find locations.
“It was painful to try and search for some of our products overhead. Sometimes, an item is not exactly where you expect it to be,” he says.
“But technologies like computer vision help with locating those products a lot easier. And it’s that sort of a mindset that we have in terms of how we can really augment the capabilities of our associates by improving their productivity, so we can serve the customers better.”
These kinds of AI-enabled productivity boosts could also offer staff at public-facing organizations not just a way to cut the drudgery of repetitive work, but an opportunity to focus on potentially life-changing activities. Michelle Smith, program manager at Barnardo’s, which is a UK charity that supports more than 370,000 children, young people, parents and caregivers, believes the smart use of AI could help people to focus on the frontline services that matter most.
“Relationships keep us running,” she says in a video call. “It’s where people get the most joy from work and it’s what motivates people. We work for a purpose and if you’re stuck in front of a screen too much, and you’re not interacting with your colleagues, it becomes painful.” Smith says generative AI tools could help the charity to cut the administrative bind and give people more time to think, collaborate, and make decisions.
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“I’ve worked in operational roles for years and there’s loads of things where I think, ‘Oh, I’d rather be speaking to a person than the really tedious process of checking paperwork,'” she says.
“It would be great if we can get people freed up from processes and allow them to be creative in their roles by taking advantage of emerging technology. I’m keen for my colleagues who are still in operational roles to be given the opportunity to develop new skills.”