Artificial intelligence (AI) has helped Fiona Dixon’s team save about 2,700 working hours in the past six months.
She’s created a system that does some of the more mundane, routine and administrative work her team of accountants typically completes in their workday.
“AI has been really great investment that we’ve made here,” Ms Dixon, a partner heading up business transformation at accounting firm HLB Mann Judd, told The Business.
The accounting firm is not alone when it comes to putting money into AI.
Investment in AI technologies has helped drive a huge rally in tech stocks this year, with the Nasdaq up more than $US4 trillion ($6 trillion).
“The area of AI that we’re looking at is more on the automation space at this stage,” Ms Dixon said.
“We do have plans in the next six to 12 months to move more into the AI and the machine learning, but for now, we’ve just been looking at the automation, which has allowed us to save a significant number of hours.”
She said the AI work had not led to any job cuts but it had allowed her team to use their time differently.
“One of the tasks that we’ve created was preparing a quarterly report package for our clients,” she explained.
“Previously, that was prepared over two weeks, every quarter, by three or four staff members, that now gets run overnight, so in less than a day.
“Then [the staff] are able to start reviewing it pretty much straight away, so it’s freed them up quite considerably in that process.”
This is the kind of change proponents of AI say will benefit workers, by allowing them to focus on other, more meaningful tasks.
Jobs we haven’t even heard of
Global investment firm Goldman Sachs predicts AI will improve the world’s GDP by 7 per cent during the next 10 years, worth about $10 trillion.
Goldman Sachs economist Joseph Briggs believes about two-thirds of existing occupations could be partially automated by AI.
But he also noted, AI will lead to jobs that haven’t even been invented yet.
“Today, 60 per cent of us are doing jobs that didn’t even exist in 1940,” he said in a recent video presentation.
But there are concerns that this technical revolution could lead to job losses.
Research by Statista found while AI could lead to the creation of 69 million more jobs worldwide, it could also result in 83 million job losses.
Analysing data from IBM, it found three-quarters of companies worldwide were looking to adopt AI technologies into their workplaces in the next five years.
China is world leading when it comes to deploying AI, with about 60 per cent of IT professionals stating their organisations are actively implementing it.
Australia is below the global average rate of adopting or looking into AI, but on par with the US and South Korea.
Could AI lead to widespread job losses?
A survey by Microsoft revealed almost half (46 per cent) of Australian workers were concerned AI could take over their jobs.
But at the same time, 65 per cent of workers said they would willingly hand over some of their more menial tasks to AI.
Microsoft’s director of surface and modern work in Australia, Jane Mackarell, said the impact of AI on jobs would not be cut and dry.
“I think it’s twofold,” she argued.
“We’ve all got to acknowledge the fact that there will be roles that shift and morph, but there will be roles where you will be able to focus on what you’re supposed to do and really enhance the creativity and innovation component.”
The survey of more than 30,000 employers and employees globally, including 1,000 in Australia, found most bosses did not think AI would lead to widespread job cuts.
“Among both employees and employers there is a concern about the restructuring of certain roles, which, you know, let’s face it, we see every time there’s a major impact of technology, and this is a major impact,” Ms Mackarell noted.
“But we also saw that for the most part, employers, for example, in Australia were twice as much interested in AI for productivity gains, rather than reducing headcount.
“So that, top of mind for an employer in Australia, is not necessarily how can I use this to sort of automate people’s roles.”
‘We have a productivity problem in our economy’
Australia’s rate of productivity, what we produce for a given amount of hours worked, fell 3.5 per cent in the 12 months to March this year.
A fall in productivity has a direct impact on the economic wellbeing of a country.
“Declines in productivity growth result in a rise in unit labour costs, which is inflationary and negative for living standards in the long run,” explained AMP deputy chief economist Diana Mousina in a recent note.
“We have a productivity problem in our economy,” added Amit Singh, a partner at economics research firm, Mandala.
“Ninety per cent of people work in the services sector, the Productivity Commission has said that that sector has lagged in productivity performance for over two decades.”
Mr Singh’s firm has modelled the top jobs it thinks are likely to be impacted by AI in Australia.
“What we found was that those occupations were lawyers and judges, consultants, policymakers, psychologists, counsellors, telemarketers — we find that those particular occupations were the top 10 occupations that were most affected,” he said.
“There are obviously hundreds of occupations that are affected, but those were the key ones.”
Alex Jenkins, a director at the WA Data Science Innovation Hub, told The Business white-collar workers would be affected.
“We’re likely to see the jobs change for knowledge workers, people who sit in front of a computer a lot, these jobs are likely to change in a significant manner,” he said.
He believes jobs that require very specialised and niche knowledge are likely to be most affected.
“These are the creative workers like writers and graphic designers, but also I think medical researchers, and those practising health, are likely to be impacted by AI in the medium term,” he said.
“AI isn’t good at jobs that require a more generalised understanding of the world, or jobs that involve a lot of interaction between people.”
Mr Jenkins added that teachers could benefit, with AI becoming an individualised tutor for every student, catering to their specific learning needs.
“A massive non-profit in America has developed technology that will be available in Australia soon, that will significantly change how teachers interact with AI,” he told The Business.
“I fully expect that this technology will allow students to learn at their own pace, and that we can accommodate students with different learning needs as well.”
You might already be speaking to AI
The typical role of people working in call, also known as contact, centres is set to be revolutionised by AI — and the change has already started.
Speaking to a chatbot, instead of long wait times on the phone to speak to someone is one method already favoured by some businesses and their customers.
“Voice for now still remains the most important channel because it’s the most natural way for people to communicate with each other,” said Josh McAdam, the chief product officer at SecureCo, a company working to bridge the gap between chat and audio AI.
“But there are advantages to being able to move between channels. For example, you might be on the train, you can’t talk, so you’ve started messaging with an organisation, when it’s your turn to actually speak to them, you switch over and you start talking to them on the phone.
“There are a lot of experiences like that, that start to be enabled, because AI can actually understand and help communicate across all of those different interaction mediums, rather than just being tied to one.”
He added AI could also answer the phone when customers get in touch with contact centres, before handing customers on to a real person if they can’t resolve a caller’s query.
“Rather than calling up and speaking to one of the old menus, which is press one for this, press two for that, that type of stuff, you’re actually starting to interact with a bot that says ‘Hey, welcome to X company, what can I help you with today?’,” Mr McAdam said.
“That’s one of the biggest things we’re seeing increased adoption of, because with recent advances in AI, where it can now understand you better, it can sound more natural, when it speaks back to you, you may not even know it’s a robot anymore.”