Huawei is not afraid to address the elephant in the room.
When US mobile carrier AT&T pulled out of a deal to sell the Mate 10 Pro in January, the CEO of Huawei’s consumer business unit, Yu Chengdong (Richard Yu), went off-script at the end of his CES 2018 keynote and tackled the topic head-on.
Similarly, when Huawei made artificial intelligence the central theme of its annual Huawei Connect conference in Shanghai, rotating chairman Xu Zhijun (Eric Xu) was quick to bring up the topic of jobs in his opening speech.
Concern that robots would replace human workers was a recurring topic throughout Huawei Connect 2018. Speakers addressed the issue during product launches, technical presentations, and panel discussions, offering varying perspectives around the fundamental impact AI will have on the nature of (human) work.
“AI will change jobs and skills in a way that is quite different from the previous [technological] revolutions,” said Xu.
“Previous revolutions led to huge demand for repetitive routine tasks, such as operating equipment in textile mills, and running car and phone assembly lines,” he added.
“AI will greatly boost automation in almost all aspects of an organisation. This means there will be much less demand for jobs that handle repetitive, routine tasks.”
Xu posited that organisations will likely have a diamond-shaped organisational chart in future, as opposed to a triangle or pyramid. AI systems will take the place of the people at the bottom, where they will handle huge volumes of repetitive and routine tasks.
Autonomous driving and AI management
In a press conference Q&A after the first day’s keynotes, Xu expanded on the statements he made in his keynote.
“If the future of AI is realised as we envision, then a lot of industries will vanish, while others will emerge,” said Xu.
Fully autonomous vehicles will make driving as a profession disappear. The car insurance industry will also disappear.
However, other jobs and perhaps whole industries will be created. Xu said that the demand for data with which to train machine learning algorithms has already created “data labeller” jobs.
While Huawei hopes to achieve automatic or semi-automatic data labelling, data collection, feature extraction, training model design, and training, Xu said that, for now, AI requires a lot of labour.
“There’s even a running joke in the industry — ‘no labour, no intelligence’,” Xu said.
Xu Wenwei (William Xu) took this a step further and said that it’s not just repetitive, labour-intensive jobs that AI will be able to do.
Many management tasks can be done by a robot, too.
“Who is the boss of the Uber drivers? It’s the robot — the AI,” William Xu said.
No-one even thinks twice about this or worries about serving some robot overlord — it’s seen as quite normal for an AI system to dispatch drivers in the most efficient way possible.
“This will become more widespread,” he said.
More jobs created than lost
While AI can tackle certain management tasks, principal analyst in Huawei’s strategy marketing department Albert Xiao said that the majority of jobs that robots will take over will be those that are boring, repetitive, and labour-intensive.
The nature of work will change. Current divisions of blue and white collar work won’t make sense in the new paradigm.
New blue and white collar categories will emerge, with jobs such as trainers, recruiters, and “doctors” for robots being created.
There will also be an entirely new category of labourer, which Xiao called “iron collar” — robots and smart machines that handle the most labour-intensive jobs in an organisation.
Xiao highlighted a report from the World Economic Forum, which predicted that although 75 million jobs will be lost to AI by 2022, another 133 million will be created.
The report is based on a survey of experts and employers in 20 countries. It surveyed experts from 313 companies, which together employ around 15 million people around the world.
This survey showed that there will still be a lot of work for human beings to do, even as AI takes over many tasks.
“The most important ability for a human being to have in future is their ability to interact with an AI or robot,” Xiao said.