The harsh daily impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is in our face nonstop, whether it be the devastating loss of life or its toll on the economy. But the most informed view can come from looking ahead of the daily news, where you will see another crisis on the horizon caused by an unexpected source — Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Point blank: As companies figure out AI, they won’t need to rehire all the people they laid off during the pandemic. It will catch us by surprise and have a devastating impact to our economy long-term. The stark reality is that many companies, out of necessity, have had to grow more comfortable with embracing the benefits of using AI to compensate for a reduced workforce. They can and will continue to do so at the detriment of workers, exacerbating the economic crisis.
COVID-19 does not discriminate
Stress causes adaptation, and many major breakthroughs throughout history have come from challenging times. For example, the 9/11 attacks, though tragic, helped inspire new robotics now used as life-saving devices worldwide.
Right now, businesses large and small are under great stress. There has been tremendous damage to the workforce due to layoffs necessitated by COVID-19 and its aftermath.
Today’s reality is that companies are dying on a Darwinian level.
While humans can argue around the politics surrounding COVID-19, this virus does not discriminate. Just as it continues to tragically claim thousands of lives in the U.S. and around the globe, it’s also an extinction event for business, killing thousands in its wake.
Death or adaptation
But is there an alternative? Yes, but it won’t make everyone happy.
This COVID-19 environment is harsh and can lead to either death or adaptation for businesses. Historically, this phenomenon is known among evolutionary scientists as stress-induced mutagenesis or stress-induced variation.
Businesses must thrive with less human resources, by any means necessary. And AI is going to be those means.
The process automation and data analyzing ability of AI has been discovered by businesses across key industries — including automotive, finance, healthcare, bioscience and communications. Now that the cat is out of the bag, it’s not going back in.
Process automation via AI can take months off the development of key technologies for autonomous vehicles, for example. And the extreme data analysis done through AI is an essential component for most businesses if they want to thrive when launching new products.
A major adaptation already costing jobs is in conversational AI handling customer service instead of humans. I’ve observed this transition first-hand through Clinc, a conversational AI company I founded in 2015 that was wildly successful in this space.
I’ve since moved on to work on what I believe to be the next major technological shift in AI. However, one observation I learned from Clinc is that even in a flourishing economy, the market has a large appetite for leveraging AI to automate business processes.
In the current COVID landscape, this appetite is only going to grow, and in many cases will be required for survival.
Losing our tails
Here’s the reality of what is about to unfold:
- Companies that have been sitting on their hands will now proceed further with AI in efforts to save on costs and improve efficiency.
- This will inhibit the job market’s regrowth post-COVID.
- Businesses will enjoy the benefits of adaptation to AI, increased operational capacity with less human workers.
The rules of biology apply here. Just as humans had tails at some point in our evolution, we lost them once they no longer were required for our balance. Anything that is no longer needed will soon disappear. And once the tail falls off, it’s not coming back.
In this case, the speed of the transition has been accelerated by COVID-19. As companies continue to figure out how AI can do the work people are doing, they will more quickly move to adopt these technologies. That means the workers let go during the pandemic may not need to be called back, or will have a shorter term for their career upon their return.
Workers should be aware of this reality, and think proactively about how to make themselves more able to contribute to their workplace in the age of AI. If you know your job is at risk, do something to help yourself as this evolution occurs, including:
- Take courses and acquire certifications on data analytics
- Learn to code: An incredible amount of resources are available
- Study machine learning
- Learn to collect and clean data
For the country as a whole, there’s much talk about recession and depression, but we need to look to our past for guidance here. As noted by our best economists and intellectuals, the Great Depression was not caused by WW1 and the credit/debt crisis (although these events certainly didn’t help), it was unemployment and America’s inability to act fast enough to get people employed that led to its severity.
By not paying close attention to the AI revolution being accelerated by COVID, we risk repeating this deadly economic cycle, and If we’re slow to adapt to this coming phenomenon, we can easily sink into another depression.
To avoid this catastrophic outcome, a wise president would call on our economic and technology leaders in Washington to form a committee to study how AI and other technologies are going to impact the workforce, and implement proper steps to retrain workers and avoid economic disaster.