The future of work

Stephen Timm investigates artificial intelligence − and its possible impact on job security

A concerning debate is growing over jobs and the effect that artificial intelligence (AI) will have on the world of work. A 2016 study by Cape IT Initiative (CITi) and the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford estimates that AI could result in the loss of as many as two-thirds of jobs in South Africa. A more recent estimate from Accenture, in January 2018, puts the figure closer to 35%.

The manufacturing sector will not be the only one affected. Ryan Falkenberg, co-CEO of AI firm Clevva, believes that in a developing country like South Africa, there will be significant job losses in any area where staff perform repetitive work, the kind that machines can easily replace. While his AI platform – by using algorithms to better analyse data – has helped a local bank to increase sales of financial products by 52% and an oil company’s call centre to resolve nearly all suppliers’ technical issues, it’s not clear how many jobs this has cost. He says while developed countries have the luxury of workforces that have high skill levels and the ability to move up the value chain, in South Africa many lack the capability to do so because of poor education.

“As a result, they need to rely on their emotional intelligence as well as multilingual and cultural skill sets to offer a differentiator to AI,” he says. Falkenberg believes that it is therefore critical that South Africa focuses policy and investments on augmenting staff with digital intelligence rather than simply focusing on full-automation alternatives.

“We need to help people transition to different roles, and companies need to be incentivised to invest in AI solutions that existing staff can leverage to increase existing productivity without being excluded altogether,” he argues.

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