Artificial intelligence: Opportunity or job-killer?

There is little doubt artificial intelligence (AI) will play a major role in the future of work – a future that has already begun. Think, for example, of self-driving cars, algorithmic stock market trading, or even computer-aided medical diagnosis.

The rapid advances in AI have the potential to create new opportunities, higher productivity and better earnings, but there are also fears they could cause job losses and a rise in inequality, with a lucky few appropriating the benefits of AI while leaving others behind.

So which way will it be?

The answer is, we can be moderately optimistic, provided policy-makers and social partners adopt the right measures. This is the conclusion of a recent research paper I wrote with some ILO colleagues.

AI-based digital technologies may allow larger segments of the labour market to improve their productivity and access better paying occupations, which in turn may help promote inclusive growth.

It’s worth remembering that historically, productivity and living standards have increased as a result of specialization and the transfer of more tedious, arduous and routine tasks from human labour to machines.  Modern farmers using sophisticated machinery are clearly better off and more productive than they would be if they used self-made tools to plough their fields.

The large reduction in capital costs brought about by AI applications, together with the fact that the direction of technological change is, at least in part, driven by the relative supply of low compared to high-skilled labour, means developing countries stand to benefit.

In many cases AI users don’t need to know much about how the technology works or to provide sophisticated input into the devices they use. Rather, their day-to-day use will allow AI-based tools to generate advice based on overall best practices combined with local circumstances. This creates low entry barriers for the spread of these new technologies and allows training and education to be focused on core numeric and literacy skills.

This means that even countries that lack the resources to teach the skills needed to produce AI applications can make wide use of such applications, creating large potential growth benefits.

However, if the opportunities are to exceed the risks, policies need to be adjusted, at both national and international levels.

This will include helping the workforce adjust. With technologies evolving rapidly, education and training need to go far beyond the school years, so that workers can be up-skilled or retrained as needed during their careers. Life-long learning will need to become a reality if the world of work is to benefit from these new technologies, now and in the future.

So, skills policies are essential, but they will not be sufficient.

We need to ensure the diffusion of new technologies around the world and open up access to data. Policy-makers and social partners also need to ensure that individual companies cannot gain market dominance and so exclude others. In this regard the observed rise in market concentration among digital firms is a matter for concern and needs to be tackled head on.

We need to devise tax policies that level the playing field among companies, boost international cooperation and ensure social dialogue, so allowing technologies and their benefits to be shared more effectively.

This issue is highlighted in the landmark report, Work for a brighter future, that the Global Commission on the Future of Work published in January, which will be discussed at this year’s International Labour Conference in June.

The ILO is well suited to provide this important platform for exchange of experiences and to support countries and social partners in adjusting and negotiating the necessary information and policy recommendations.


Ekkehard Ernst
Ekkehard Ernst
Future of Work and Artificial Intelligence Expert, ILO