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Is AI a friend or foe, job-creator or destroyer?

Is AI a misunderstood servant to humanity or a potential threat to the established societal order?

Headlines were made earlier this year when a new rapper dropped new music on – where else – TikTok. Tens of millions of followers signed up to listen to songs powered not by artistic nous but artificial intelligence (AI).

Are rappers just the latest cohort of the jobs market to fall foul of AI and its staggering potential? We have been warned for years that AI is poised to take over the world of work, with many jobs simply ceasing to exist as machines finally win the war against man. We already know it can beat us at chess. And now it can rap.

Yet the World Economic Forum maintains that AI will create more jobs than it destroys, while others say the future lies in cobotics, with computers and robots assisting humans in the workplace.

Don’t believe the hype, says Prof Barry O’Sullivan, who is professor at the school of computer science & IT at University College Cork, and vice-chair of the European Commission High-Level Expert Group on AI.


Where does the truth lie? Is the technology a friendly personal assistant that will destress our working lives and make us all more productive or are those fears about mass job destruction valid?

O’Sullivan maintains that AI is maligned and misunderstood. “AI tends to get a bad rap because people tend to project all of their technology fears on to it,” he says. “There is a lot of fear, a lot of hype and a lot of nonsense.”

One problem is that with no single agreed definition of what AI actually involves, confusion can reign supreme, and misperceptions abound. “I generally try to explain it as, AI is the development of computer systems that solve problems normally associated with requiring human intelligence,” O’Sullivan says.

One example he offers is the Netflix algorithm that suggests your next bingewatch. “There are different subtypes of AI that focus on one aspect of human intelligence such as reasoning or problem-solving or learning – it is not about trying to create a super-intelligence. We are not building something that will take over the world, we are just building something that can do exactly the task it was designed to do.”

Yet AI is much more prevalent than people realise, says Dr Paddy Healy, senior lecturer at the faculty of science and engineering, University of Limerick. “Much of it happens behind the scenes,” he says. “For example, AI is being used by the semiconductor industry to help in the testing of the reliability of memory chips, and batteries with reduced charging time.”

Healy says that while in many cases AI is used to build better products – “a means to an end, rather than the end itself”– this is not to diminish the role that AI plays in more upfront technologies that users interact with immediately. “For better or for worse when we interact with customer service web pages we are referred to chatbots that are powered by AI to route our issue to the most appropriate attendant; more and more, banking fraud is detected through AI algorithms that detect patterns of fraudulent activities.”

AI will be a “massively transformational tool”, agrees Denis Hannigan, Accenture’s applied intelligence lead. He believes the true potential and power of AI and robotics will be in augmenting and supporting humans as opposed to replacing them. “AI looks to reimagine processes – rather than simple automation. By harnessing it in a collaborative intelligence with human beings it will ultimately enable us to make better decisions.”

But while AI has steadily become integrated into our everyday lives – such as the aforementioned Netflix algorithm – this hasn’t yet been replicated in the workplace, says Paul Pierotti, EY Ireland data analytics and emerging technology partner. “However, that is starting to change, driven by business users demanding the customised service they are used to at home. We will see a significant acceleration of AI adoption for enterprises and business to business services over the next few years.”

Yet some recent Accenture research suggested that just 12 per cent of enterprises would be classified as an “AI achiever”, where AI is embedded into the organisation and is driving value, he says.

O’Sullivan is of the belief that AI will not replace workers but will still have a dramatic impact on the world of work. “The idea that there will be massive job loss is not true but what is certainly going to happen is that the nature of people’s jobs will change.”

Modular Automation is an Irish company which delivers custom automation solutions, build to print and tooling solutions for a host of global medtech manufacturers. Its CEO, Vivian Farrell, says the reality is different to the perception when it comes to AI and automation. “If technology was at the point of replacing workers then we would already be seeing it happen,” she says, noting the recent CSO report showing Ireland at full employment.

“As a provider of advanced technology to the manufacturing sector in Ireland and globally, whether that be robotic or date type solutions, it is always in the context of those solutions working hand in hand with humans as opposed to it replacing them,” says Farrell. The starting point for automation is often quite simple, such as an operator suffering from repetitive strain injury, for example, she adds.

Their experience is that technology typically replaces tasks that are “either unsafe for operators to be performing in the first place or repetitive mundane tasks that are just boring”.

“The manufacturer is then looking for where to deploy that particular person into work that is going to be more interesting, more rewarding and more enjoyable as opposed to performing something very repetitive day in, day out.”

Healy is more circumspect. “If fine-precision robots are developed that can eliminate manual labour then the employment opportunities for unskilled workers are diminished. Some will say that the elimination of rote, humdrum work is a good thing but whether there are sufficient work alternatives for what will likely be a larger and larger fraction of the labour force is a different matter.”

Farrell points out that these technology solutions are being developed by humans, thus creating more demand for engineers and IT specialists. “A robot can’t do anything – it has to be programmed to perform a particular task. So we will always need human input in the form of software engineers, code developers and testers. These are highly-skilled jobs that wouldn’t be there if you weren’t deploying that technology.

“There is a lot of scaremongering that goes on around this whole discussion which I don’t understand because there are so many positives – it is about advancement and getting better,” she continues. “We are not a low-cost economy but yet we have a very vibrant manufacturing sector. Technology has helped bring down the cost of manufacturing and kept us competitive.”

Irish businesses have a huge opportunity to embrace AI, says Pierotti. “Having C-suite commitment to the AI journey is increasingly critical and we are working closely with business leaders across multiple industries to help them better understand this opportunity and realise its full potential.”

O’Sullivan chaired the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs (EGFSN), which recently highlighted the skills needed for Ireland to fully benefit from the opportunities presented by AI. The group’s report notes that AI is not likely to bring about a net loss of jobs, but it will replace certain tasks within many jobs over time. This points to a massive need for both organisations and individuals to identify where AI will impact their job or their sector, and prepare by seeking out the necessary education and training.

“Everyone will need to become familiar with AI,” says O’Sullivan. “Some people will be using it very technically, but the ordinary citizen will have to know what it is because they will be using it more and they need to understand the consequences of using AI systems.”

He says AI should be treated as simply a new form of IT, with people needing to upskill accordingly; UCC offers free online courses to help people understand what AI is and what it can do, while for those seeking to study in the area, UL has launched a new integrated BSc/MSc in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning that Healy says will provide people with both the technical skills and ethical training that will be necessary “for the fair treatment of all of humanity”.

Indeed, as AI and robotics continue to enhance our productivity a host of ethical questions crop up. Commentators point out that the wealth increasing automation generates will be concentrated among a smaller and smaller share of the population.

O’Sullivan agrees. “If corporations are making huge profits because they can do more work with the same workforce, how should those profits be shared? Does the ordinary worker benefit from these productivity increases?”

“There is a need to make sure that all citizens benefit from this step change,” Pierotti says. “It might also require us to make further changes to the mechanisms our society uses to share wealth, which as a society we have done many times before.”

Danielle Barron

Danielle Barron is a contributor to The Irish Times