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Technology and work (The Cambridge Judge Business Debate podcast series)

10 June 2020

The article at a glance

How do AI, video conferencing and other technologies affect the workplace?  In this episode, joining podcast host Michael Kitson, University Senior Lecturer …

How do AI, video conferencing and other technologies affect the workplace? 

Photo of CJBS faculty.
L-R: Michael Kitson, Dr Stella Pachidi, Dr Mia Gray, Dr Kishore Sengupta

In this episode, joining podcast host Michael Kitson, University Senior Lecturer in International Macroeconomics at Cambridge Judge Business School, are Cambridge Judge faculty Dr Kishore Sengupta, Reader in Operations Management at Cambridge Judge; Dr Mia Gray, University Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geography and Fellow of Girton College, University of Cambridge; and Dr Stella Pachidi, University Lecturer in Information Systems at Cambridge Judge.

This is the 19th in a series of “Cambridge Judge Business Debate” podcasts featuring faculty and others associated with Cambridge Judge Business School and the broader Cambridge community. 

This latest podcast focuses on technology at work at a time when many people are working at home. The podcast, which was recorded remotely, looks at the roles of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and other automation, and their short- and long-term effects on the workplace and skills development. 

Here is an edited transcript of some of the podcast discussion:

What technologies are we referring to? 

Michael Kitson: “Moving beyond the current crisis there is much discussion on how technology may change the way we work. But it’s useful to talk about what technological changes we’re talking about, because there’s automation, there’s artificial intelligence, and other technologies.”

Mia Gray: “I think a lot of people use ‘AI’, which has a very specific definition, as a catchall to talk about all these technological changes, but there’s a whole spectrum of different technologies that people conflate when they talk about AI.”

Kishore Sengupta: “I think of tech in three different categories: the here and now, what we do to get our work done through the cloud, instant messaging and the like; automation; and specific technologies such as AI and machine learning that make decisions which formerly were the provenance of human beings.”

Stella Pachidi: “The difference now is that human judgment tasks can be automated. And we’re not talking about simple tasks, as the technology is developing so rapidly that with certain tasks the technology can already imitate sophisticated human judgement.”

Job losses, job gains, and new skills

Michael Kitson: “What is the impact going to be on work: who’s going to gain, who’s going to lose out, what jobs will be created or lost?”

Mia Gray: “We saw productivity increases from the IT revolution, but it had a time lag, and not all the investments were productive. There have been some wild predictions, ranging from 45 per cent of all jobs to be lost, to 10 per cent, and some scholars argue that you might not have job losses at all. It’s not something you can easily read off the existing industrial mix.”

Michael Kitson: “It’s easier to understand which jobs will be lost than which jobs will be created. When you go back 20 or 30 years ago, there are a lot of current jobs in the UK that didn’t exist then – including social media influencers, dog walkers, personal trainers.”

Stella Pachidi: “A couple of years ago the debate was on the loss of jobs, but the debate has shifted a lot. We will see descaling but also upscaling of some occupations where the skills that people need will be different. A radiologist’s job is not going to vanish, but the nature of their work is changing as they use AI to support their work, but they still need to be there to make sense of the results of the machines.”

Kishore Sengupta: “I predict that in higher education there will a weeding out. University degrees will be for specific jobs and you will see a return to the noble discipline of being an apprentice; I also think that it’s not only a matter of skills but how long a skill is going to last, the half-life of any skill will diminish sharply – we will need to refresh our skills at a rate we generally have not done in the past.”

Are new regulations needed? 

Kishore Sengupta: “There are four ways public policy needs to respond: enabling access as we already see a digital divide; enabling opportunity; enabling protections such as healthcare and better support from social serices so that people can learn new skills; and in privacy, curbing or regulating surveillance at work by employers.”

Temporary or permanent changes? 

Michael Kitson: “Do you see any permanent changes from this current crisis with regards to technology and work, or is it just a temporary shock?”

Stella Pachidi: “I think this is a time we are really accelerating how do get things done with technology. It’s something we’ve been grappling with, but because we’ve got to get it done in the current situation there’s been an acceleration.”

Tech doesn’t always bridge the transatlantic divide

Mia Gray: “Tech is an enabling thing but not deterministic, as there are real cultural differences in how people work. Our research looked at some of the firm sites in Silicon Valley, where no one took their holidays although they had British quite generous holidays; in the British part of the firm of course everyone took every holiday that they had.”