Daniel Susskind: Why it is unhelpful to think about how AI will affect ‘jobs’

Delegates are warned the people profession needs to embrace artificial intelligence or risk losing relevance

Credit: Andrew Ferraro

Daniel Susskind, economist and author of A World Without Work, told the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition that workers are too concerned about how AI will affect jobs, rather than how it will impact tasks and processes. 

“One of the unhelpful things we do when we talk about the future of work is we tend to talk about the different jobs that people do,” said Susskind.

“We talk about lawyers, doctors, teachers, accountants, architects and so on, but actually the term ‘jobs’ is really unhelpful. And it’s unhelpful because it encourages us to think of the work as a monolithic, indivisible lump of stuff. Lawyers do lawyering. Doctors do doctoring. 

“But as you all know, that’s nonsense. You look closely at any job and you see that people perform a wide variety of different tasks and different individual activities in their jobs.”

He said the risk when we think about the future of work is that we get “trapped in the mindset that the only way that technology can affect the work that we do is by destroying or creating entire jobs in an instant”.

However, rather than turning up one day and seeing a robot sitting at your desk, Susskind said the impact of AI in the workplace was a “lot more subtle” than this.

Instead, he said: “It might displace us from performing particular tasks or particular activities, but at the same time it makes performing other tasks more valuable and more important for human beings to do them. And that’s a really important point.”

He explained that, traditionally, it was blue-collar jobs including manufacturing and agriculture that were deemed most at risk at automation. But he said that this distinction between “jobs and tasks” means white-collar workers in professional and managerial roles should take the rise of AI seriously. 

A lot of tasks that even “our most expert workers” undertake are “relatively routine and can be automated accordingly” and do not always require “the subtleties of creativity, judgement and empathy”. 

Additionally, Susskind said there was an “AI fallacy” where people assume that tasks that do require more creativity, judgement and empathy will be safe from AI.

However, while AI might not be able to “think like human beings”, “they might still be able to perform the tasks that require those faculties from us, but perform those tasks in fundamentally different ways”. 

Peter Cheese, CEO of the CIPD, said the people profession needed to “lean into” AI because “the reality is there are threats” to jobs. 

“How do we use technology to create good jobs and better jobs?” he said. “We can look at the world of work today and say: ‘You know what, there are a lot of jobs that are not using our human skills as effectively, where people don’t feel they have control of things, where there’s too much stress.’ And we need to understand how we can use AI in this regard.”

Cheese compared the AI transition to the energy transition and said there needed to be a “just transition” to incorporating AI into the workplace. “We need to ensure that, in losing old jobs and creating new ones, we do not leave people behind,” he said. “And we have a very big role to play in that. We also have a very big role in how we use AI ethically and responsibly.”

The ethical debates around AI underscored the importance of HR and how “we need to be in the room influencing” decision making to ensure that AI serves the business, rather than sidelining the needs of workers, Cheese said.

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