We are seeing the return to work ramp up, as employers are looking to bring their workforce back into the office. Combine this with the amount of downsizing from employers due to the COVID-19 pandemic and one question remains: Are we really getting more people, or will technology be replacing some of the tasks since we found the value in AI (artificial intelligence)?

Stepping back, figures from ILO (Intl. Labour Organization) show 8.8% of global working hours were lost for the whole of last year (relative to the fourth quarter of 2019), equivalent to 255 million full-time jobs. This is roughly four times greater than the number lost during the 2009 global financial crisis.

These lost working hours are due to either reduced working hours for those in employment or “unprecedented” levels of employment loss, hitting 114 million people. Significantly, 71% of these employment losses (81 million people) came in the form of inactivity, rather than unemployment, meaning that people left the labor market. Gone. Possibly never to return.

Naturally women have been more impacted than men, as have younger workers. The employment loss among youth (15-24-years-old) is at 8.7%, compared to 3.7% for adults. Yikes. Our young workers are disappearing in droves.

Now, we have finally reached a point where we are ramping back up operations and are considering what a return to work will look like. While some organizations recognize the advantages of a hybrid workforce, others are looking to return fully. Research from Gartner shows 48% of employees will likely work remotely post-pandemic, as compared to 30% in a pre-pandemic world. Those numbers aren’t too far off. Either way, the reality is work is going to look different, whether it is in the office, remote, or hybrid.

How will artificial intelligence fit into this return to work? Gartner suggests it will continue to automate large parts of routine work. Think things that are fast, known, and repeatable.

Gartner forecasts global RPA (robotic process automation) software revenue will increase 19.5% in 2021 and continue to grow at double-digit rates through 2024. At the same time, AI and emerging technologies such as virtual personal assistants and chatbots will replace almost 69% of the manager’s workload—notice it doesn’t say replacing the job, just the workload.

And then there are predictions from companies like Beroe—a provider of procurement intelligence and supplier compliance solutions—which makes a pretty bold statement: About 50% of the low-skill work population worldwide will be supplanted by the AI industry in the next 5-7 years. Yup, it anticipates a whopping one-fifth of the workers will rely on AI by 2022. To add insult to injury, it suggests by 2030, robots will be the preferred workforce for more than three million jobs globally.

That is pretty audacious, and keep in mind this forecast is coming from a provider of technology who has some skin in the game. We all remember Ericsson and Cisco predicting there would be 50 billion connected devices by 2020. Many analysts also jumped on the bandwagon. That didn’t exactly pan out. Both Ericsson and Cisco have backpedaled on their projection, with Ericsson predicting that by 2050 there will be 24 billion interconnected devices and Cisco suggesting there will be 29.3 billion networked devices by 2023.

Part of the problem is adoption rates for new technology tend to surge after an initial introduction period, but maintaining that type of growth is difficult. Unforeseen factors arise that hamper growth—like a pandemic or new regulations or standards.

What does all this mean for our workforce and artificial intelligence? Here is my prediction: Few jobs will actually be replaced by AI, but the technology could fill many gaps that already exist within organizations and you can bet nearly every job will likely be augmented by artificial intelligence in some way in the next decade. The rise of AI is stealthy, not overt. It is happening already. In many organizations, it is already here. It crept in with many not even realizing it is there.

In the future, man and machine will inevitably have to work side-by-side. Whether that is in an office or at home is still yet to be determined.

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