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In all probability, your job is going to be affected by artificial intelligence. That may sound frightening, but there is an equal split between that impact being a positive one that enhances your productivity and a negative one that perhaps wipes out your occupation altogether. Those are the startling conclusions from a recent study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which also advises that countries take steps now to increase their odds of winning in the AI revolution.

It is not an exaggeration to say that AI is going to remake the economy and the labour market at a pace that will leave policy-makers scrambling to keep up. From the ethical considerations to the fact that the new technology can potentially do many jobs better than the humans currently occupying them, the implications are huge. The IMF study takes an interesting tack in that it looks at the occupational changes and challenges the notion that education alone will be enough to keep workers sheltered from disruption.

There has been a changing narrative regarding the way that tech and education would go together. For a long time, the story was that those with less education would be increasingly vulnerable as clever robots learned how flip burgers and work assembly lines. More recently, that story has shifted as it has become clear that technology could do a lot more than had originally been anticipated and could potentially better work done by doctors, lawyers and finance professionals, to name a few and that perhaps that group is even more at risk of being replaced.

To get a better feel for how it will pan out, the IMF looked at occupations and assessed whether they were likely to be shielded from AI displacement as well as how likely there were to be complementary with AI. That means taking a wider view than what tasks can be replaced and also putting an ethical spin on things, looking at what tasks we as a society value having done by humans.

The IMF uses the example of judges, whose work might indeed be highly exposed to AI in that it could sift through mounds of data and come up with recommendations now made by human beings. That said, they conclude that human judges are very unlikely to be replaced given that society would be unwilling to have judicial rulings to be made solely by AI. Instead, AI will likely complement the work of judges, making them more productive but not replacing them. On the flip side is the example of clerical workers, whose work may in many cases be replaced by AI and who will not be saved by societal preferences.

In some cases, the shifts will be driven by need. The IMF sees AI being implemented aggressively to do medical consultations in low-income countries because doctors are in short supply. It is not hard to imagine that high income countries such as Canada could also make use of AI for consultations in areas where doctors or specialists are scarce and wait times are long. That in itself brings up questions for the medical establishment as to whether they would like to expand the number of doctors to make sure that AI is not used in isolation.

Rising income disparities as a result of AI adoption are a real concern. The IMF paper points out that in virtually every country they looked at, whether high or low income, the same groups of workers are set up to lose ground. Workers with more education are likely to be more disrupted by AI (think of those in financial services for example) but are also more likely to be considered ‘complementary’ with it, which is to say that they are likely to be able to work with it. Women are also more likely to feel the disruption of AI, given that they are disproportionately employed in sectors that are more likely to see change ahead, but given that they are in both high and low complementary jobs, they will face both more risk and more opportunities. Older workers, on average, are more vulnerable and younger ones less so.

There is good news for higher-wage earners with the IMF finding that their incomes are likely to rise. That is not good news for wealth inequality, given that it suggests that the gap between high- and low-income workers is likely to widen. The IMF suggests that this can perhaps be ameliorated by ‘redistributive and other fiscal policies’ which perhaps brings up the need for more discussions around basic income programs or the like. That might be necessary, but it also underlies the need to rethink the education and training sectors so that Canada’s labour force is skewed toward having more employment in higher productivity and higher wage sectors.

Getting the most out of AI will be a big task. It will require changes to our regulatory framework to start, but as well it will require everyone – from business to workers to government – to play a part. Revolutions can lead to social unrest, something that the IMF warns could happen as AI use deepens across industries. There are potentially huge benefits to being on the right side of the change as well, and having a plan to cope with the disruption is the right starting point.

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