Throughout history, waves of technological innovations have had a very significant impact on the labour market. Creating a more effective process for production will, no doubt, have an effect on human labour.
The industrial revolution which overhauled the production process of goods had an unprecedented impact on not only the production process but also every part of human existence. The transition from manual means of production to mechanical means necessitated the need for production companies to constantly research more effective ways to produce.
By the 1830s, the full effect of the industrial revolution set in. Prior to the industrial revolution, weaving was done at home for family usage and also for sale. These women and children who weaved in the convenience of their homes would later become staff at textile factories. Although there was an economic boom, the standard of living didn’t rise immediately. If anything, it fell drastically under this early capitalist period.
Will history repeat itself?
Although jobs were lost at the industrial revolution, the revolution ended up creating more jobs than it killed. For example, the invention of automobiles killed the need for horse services. The automobile industry alone created an unprecedented amount of jobs. Truck drivers were needed, mechanics, road construction workers, and automobile factory workers, amongst others, were needed to serve workers.
The AI era, unlike the industrial revolution era, isn’t just about creating machines, it is creating them to think like humans and perform tasks more effectively than humans. The fear of AI by employees is, therefore, quite justified. Will AI create more jobs or take jobs away?
The first technological revolution seemed to have created more jobs than it displaced. The AI revolution is a technological revolution far more advanced and taking place faster than the industrial revolution.
The truth is this wave of technology will have a stronger impact on the first. According to the Mckinsey Global Institute, the scale of AI’s disruption is 300 times that of the industrial revolution.
Another truth is, though a lot of research has been carried out, it is still too early to accurately predict what the impact of AI will be. But going by history, a job displacement in one sector could lead to an expansion in other sectors, making room for displaced workers. It’s also possible that new technology creates a new sector that never existed.
Jobs that will be replaced are most likely those that have to do with monotonous tasks, for example, call centres, production line workers, and document classification.
Higher skilled jobs will probably see assistance from AI rather than an outright takeover. There will equally be some takeovers in the financial industry. The need for cashiers and customer service workers could be lost to AI, and routine accounting will be easily done by AI.
The need for some low skilled workers could be eliminated, thereby, causing people to upgrade their skill sets and to take on more complex work. This might improve the standard of living and lead to a rise in the level of literacy.
During the industrial revolution, people adapted to the new technological ecosystem. They learned to use machines that made their work easier and in some cases, increased their wages. But with a technological transformation 300 times the scale of the industrial revolution, can every human adapt as fast as the disruption scale? That answer is left to be answered.
Adapting means updating skillset because the advent of AI could lead to loss of low skilled jobs but in a continent like Africa updating isn’t as easy as it sounds.
According to the UN, there are 203 million illiterate people who are below the age of 15 in Sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is only one-seventh of the world’s population, and it accounts for 27% of the global illiterate population. The AI take over might just plunge this population into an abyss of penury, as low skilled jobs might be wiped out of existence.
The current level of poverty might also make updating skillsets virtually impossible for many people. Online courses, which are the easiest and somewhat cheaper means of acquiring skills, are still very expensive for low income earners in Africa.
The impact of AI on jobs can, therefore, not be generalised. Its effect is relative to the current social and economic realities of a country. Another variable that cannot be estimated is our ability, as humans, to innovatively adapt to a future full of several uncertainties— as it is with Artificial Intelligence.