Transforming Jobs in the Age of AI
周晓玲 译  

Transforming Jobs in the Age of AI


By Joe Luc Barnes


The future of labor in a digital economy has become a heated topic alongside the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI). Will the proliferation of AI and robotics herald human redundancy as a working species?

自人工智能(AI)出现以来, 数字经济时代劳动力的未来已成为一个热门话题。AI和机器人技术的广泛使用,是否预示着作为工作物种的人类将会变得多余?

This prospect has inspired pessimism in many Western countries that is not shared by most Chinese. Indeed, according to a survey compiled by the Dentsu Aegis Network1, just 18 percent of British and German citizens feel that new digital technologies will create job opportunitiesover the next five to ten years. In China, acountry with a labor force of around 800 million, 65 percent of people believe that AI will create even more work.


Government backing


A major factor is that few governments are embracing the digital age with as much gusto as China. In July 2017, China’s State Council set a national goal of becoming the world’s primary AI innovation center, aiming to foster an AI industry that produces in excess of one trillion yuan (US$147.7 billion) by 2030.


Such enthusiasm has seeped right down to the municipal level, with local governments especially keen to support startups in the sector.


“The business environment in China and especially Shanghai is very attractive,” says Stéphane Truong, founder of Actionable Data, an AI consultancy service company. “I have seen a lot of initiative from several city districts such as collaboration with incubators2 to propose ancillary services, organizingcompetition for financial subsidies and providing a flexible fiscal policy.”


But Beijing has perhaps created the most fertile environment for tech startups. The capital’s Zhongguancun area is known as China’s “Silicon Valley” due to concentration of tech startups based there. Its proximity to China’s two premier academic institutions, Peking and Tsinghua universities, makes it a happy hunting ground for new talent.


Disappearing jobs


One startup is Oriental iFly, which aims to use AI to create an automatic grading system for essays that provides instant feedback to teachers on students’ work and saves time spent marking.


I asked one of the company’s product designers, Kailin Xie, whether this innovation might put teachers out of work.


“Teachers aren’t hired to grade,” she asserts. “As long as there are students, teachers will be necessary. Grading is just an extraneous part of the job. Our product enables a teacher to save dozens of hours a week on marking essays.”

“老师的职责不是批改作业,” 她说,“ 只要还有学生,教师就必不可少。批改作业并非一定要由教师来做。我们的产品能使老师每周节约几十小时批改学生作文的时间。”

Is a school likely to pay those teachers the same for less work? Or will it instead use those extra hours to give them more classes, which would reduce personnel requirements?


Such questions could be some of the defining issues of the digital age. Should companies use AI to increaseproductivity and profits, or do they alsohave a duty to improve the day-to-day routine of their employees?



Business optimism


Much of the tech community has adopted the belief that these problems will simply sort themselves out. This is certainly the attitude of Stuart Leitch, founder of, a Seattle and Shanghai-based software company that uses AI to improve customer engagement3 with online products. “Firms have a very bad habit of hiring for unnecessary positions. The employees aren’t bad, but their duties usually involve repetitive, brainless and low-value work.”

大部分科技行业从业人士相信,随着时间推移,这些问题自然会迎刃而解。 公司创始人斯图尔特·利奇显然也持这种态度。这是一家总部位于西雅图和上海的软件公司,利用 AI 技术提升在线产品的顾客契合度。“许多公司存在一种积弊,即为不必要的岗位招聘。虽然招来的员工素质并不差,但他们往往从事着 重复性、无须动脑、低价值的工作。”

“We want to release people from those positions and reduce the cost of that kind of work so those people can do more meaningful things. At the end of the day, we expect to create jobs across industries rather than put people out of work,” explains Leitch.


But what of the manufacturing jobs that have served as the backbone of China’s economic growth? Many are likely to go, admits Denny Xu, vice president of the Shanghai Haihe IT Company, which produces intelligent speech robots.


“AI will change future employment trends and patterns,” he explains. “Now, the labor force is too costly, so lower-level labor will largely be replaced by AI-related technology. But humans won’t be completely unnecessary – human-machine coupling will become a future trend for enterprises and busi- nesses.”


Skills gap


To a large extent, the challenge is retraining people. Thousands of brand new jobs are being created. In fact, a growing complaint from business leaders and recruiters is a lack of talent with the necessary skills to fill emerging jobs.


Stuart Leitch notes, “It’s especially difficult to find talent on the development front. Since the skills most indemand for our business are hard data4 science and machine-learning skills, we’re finding that we need PhD-level candidates, which are few and far between. It may become necessary to just hire go-getters who can learn quickly but don’t necessarily have experience.”


Stéphane Truong at Actionable Data has similar issues. “My company would ideally employ candidates with at least a master’s degree in computer science. We offer a very competitive package, but the battle for talent is rough because employees are more attracted to mature companies.”


Technology education


With such a limited talent pool, domestic Chinese tech giants like Alibaba and Tencent usually have first pick of the best talent.


But China’s edge on other countries may be its realization of the role that education plays in digitalizing the economy. Beijing has sunk major investment into computer science programs at its major universities, which is slowly starting to pay off.


Tsinghua University produced more of the top one-percent most highly cited papers in math and computing disciplines than any other in the world between 2013 and 2016. Much of the situation is about money: While Chinese professors still don’t earn as much as their American counterparts, many of them are still offered over US$100,000 per year, making China vastly more competitive academically.


U.S. News & World Report even ranked the university as the number one computer science institution in the world in 2018. The fact that China is now competing with Western universities in this vital field is an immense achievement and will be key to unlocking AI potential in the country.


“After all,” says Denny Xu, “AI is a new tech field – millions of young people with dreams will choose to work in this realm.”



1. 电通安吉斯集团属于电通集团(Dentsu Group,日本最大的广告与传播集团),提供高水准的媒体、数字和创意传播服务。


2. incubator 企业孵化中心,也称企业孵化器或高新技术创业服务中心,是一种新型的社会经济组织,通过提供研发、生产、经营的场地,通信、网络与办公等方面的共享设施,系统的培训和咨询,政策、融资、法律和市场推广等方面的支持,降低企业的创业风险和创业成本,提高企业的成活率和成功率。


3. customer engagement 顾客契合,是一种心理状态,它是由在核心服务关系中与核心机构/客体(如品牌)互动、共创顾客体验产生的,在共创价值的服务关系中以一种动态的、重复性的过程存在。


4. hard data 硬数据,是对改进情况的主要衡量标准,是一些易于收集的无可争辩的事实,描述的是具体数值,如工业产值、零售数据、进出口数据等。软数据一般指较为主观的调查类的指数,如消费者信心指数、采购经理人指数等。