The debate about whether an algorithm will replace your job is becoming more pertinent

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Most of the conversations about artificial intelligence (AI) seem to be focussed on the potential job losses this new form of automation will result in.

Some 800-million people could lose their jobs by 2030 according to the figures from a study by the McKinsey Global Institute last December, which also predicted AI will affect 800 various job types and occupations in 46 countries. That’s 20% of the global workforce, a not insignificant number of people who will be affected.

“We estimate that as many as 375-million workers globally (14% of the global workforce) will likely need to transition to new occupational categories and learn new skills, in the event of rapid automation adoption,” the authors conclude.

We have to assume that this is not the part of McKinsey that helped Eskom nor the Saudi government and take the research to heart.

The kinds of jobs that can be easily automated, they say, are machine operators, food workers, mortgage brokers, accountants and other administration staff. As is always the case with AI jobs, these are the ones that can be easily automated – a white collar version of the effect of the production line and robotic arms on blue-collar jobs. And, as is always the case, the jobs requiring human interaction are still relatively safe for now – including doctors, lawyers, teachers, care workers and bartenders (although the Saxonwold Shebeen’s famously generous barkeeps have already been affected by other factors).

Meanwhile, as is always the case in AI conversations, McKinsey predicted that technology will fuel the creation of more jobs – as we have seen how the internet and social media have created a raft of new jobs, fancy titles and people who work from home. “This job growth (jobs gained) could more than offset the jobs lost to automation,” McKinsey wrote.

Going to Shanghai for a AI-themed conference earlier this month seemed to be an ideal opportunity to see first-hand how this new technology might be affecting the country seen to be in the lead.

“China was really the first country to tackle AI on a national level in terms of focused, governmental thinking; they were the first to say ‘we need to win this thing’ and they certainly are ahead of the United States and Europeans by a few years,” revered author Yuval Noah Harari told The New York Times.

The Israeli historian, whose first book Sapiens was a seminal text at understanding our history, has just published a new book called 21 Lessons for the 21st Century in which AI and its threats feature prominently.

“AI allows you to analyze more data more efficiently and far more quickly, so it should be able to help make better decisions. But it depends on the [type of]decision,” he said, adding that “AI is only as powerful as the metrics behind it”.

Meanwhile, Huawei – the largest maker of telecoms equipment and the global number two smartphone manufacturer – is predicting that AI will become a new “general purpose technology” (such as electricity or information technology). By 2025, it is predicting 40bn personal smart devices and 90% these device users will have a smart digital assistant.

As Huawei’s rotating chairman Eric Xu told the Huawei Connect conference, AI services will be “as prevalent as the air we breathe”.

This column first appeared in Financial Mail

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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