Is your job safe after COVID-19?

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WHILE it’s no longer news that Microsoft recently rendered redundant dozens of journalists and editorial workers as part of a bigger strategy to replace the human editors with artificial intelligence (AI), the effects of this decision on the human labour force is chilling.

A brief background of the sacked Microsoft journalists is in order to fully explore the subject of automation and incorporation of AI.

The journalists, numbering upwards of 50, were shown the exit on June 30 and were part of Microsoft’s SANE (Search, Ads, News, Edge) division. 

During their tenure, they were tasked with selecting news pieces from various organisations and posting the content on Microsoft’s MSN website and Edge browser news pages. 

MSN used to flight its own content, but had shifted to flighting content from other news sites, pasting it on their site, which was accessed by a number of deep-pocketed advertisers, and would share the proceeds of advertising revenue with the respective media organisations, whose content they displayed.

Hence despite not producing the content themselves, the Microsoft journalists played the watchdog role, ensuring copy selected gave prominence to obscure media houses, sifted through content and picked human-interest articles appropriate for the target audiences and blocked out content inappropriate for younger audiences such as those with explicit content.

Counting his losses, an unnamed journalist who lost his job to AI bared his soul to The Guardian: “I spend all my time reading about how automation and AI is going to take all our jobs, and here I am, AI has taken my job.”

With a few clicks of a mouse and the right commands, a programme can be created which can do pretty much everything that was done by these ‘former’ breadwinners. 

With AI, machines can carry out millions of permutations per second, making decisions and learning from data widely available on the internet to select, broadcast and evaluate content on various platforms.

From the employer’s perspective, AI provides unmatched competence and business turn-around times ages faster than a human could humanly cope with.  

Sadly, the sacked Microsoft journalists join millions of workers across the globe that have fallen victim to job cuts and furloughs as companies struggle to stay afloat following the coronavirus force majeure, which spelt doom for many conglomerates as profitability nose-dived to record lows.

Earlier this year, a number of well-known global conglomerates announced plans to scale down on labour costs; Disney furloughed a staggering 100 000 employees, Lufthansa cut 22 000 jobs, Renault sent packing 15 000 employees, British Airways axed 12 000, British Petroleum sacked 10 000 workers, and the list goes on. 

An Africa Union report forecasted up to 20 million job losses in Africa as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic. 

In Zimbabwe, tens of thousands of informally employed people have been struggling to make ends meet as their congested ‘workplaces’ were deemed a COVID-19 time bomb, prompting the authorities to restore sanity and clampdown on all errant activities in the economy. 

While the job losses highlighted above are not just a result of companies’ desire to automate as they were exacerbated by a harsh operating environment characterised by lockdowns and restrictions on movement, this is the route being taken by most entities in a bid to escape collapse.

Sad as it is, this is the harsh reality facing many employers, and, consequently, employees, particularly those whose relevance has suddenly become questionable in the wake of the COVID-19 scourge.

The pandemic has resultantly forced many organisations to accelerate their strides in automation.

Most companies have been forced to let employees work remotely from the comfort of their homes. The system has worked out so perfectly, especially for those in the service industry or those whose work can be conducted online such that their companies are contemplating renting smaller office spaces, and let those employees that don’t have to physically turn up at the office continue to do so into perpetuity as a coping mechanism.

In Zimbabwe, while there are many success cases, some companies’ failure to incorporate new technology has been less than desirable.

Some companies, schools, and entities only set up social media accounts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Their lame excuse of embracing technology explains the unattended to enquiries that flood their customer services portal, where system generated messages fail to satisfy customers in need of urgent services. 

Some schools are also asking for an arm and a leg from parents having set up a portal, where students access PDFs as learning material and they send answers back on the platform, with no audio or visual aids, and the schools have the audacity to claim they are conducting e-learning. 

At the pace at which technology is advancing, one would have thought that companies should have highly interactive websites with updated information, yet what one sees on the ground is far from this reality.

To some extent, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated some companies’ acceptance of new technologies into their business models, but, if not done properly, the result might be less than desirable.

While the coronavirus acted as a catalyst for most of the changes highlighted above, job losses due to mechanisation and automation are not a new phenomenon.

Since time immemorial, organisations have always scouted for an opportunity to cut costs, close loopholes and increase productivity, and AI seems to be the answer for most organisations especially those in the tech industry.

Pundits championing the advancement of AI contend that despite high set up costs, in the long run, AI eliminates the agency costs associated with employing humans.

Arguments claiming that most underperforming humans have escaped the axe due to compassionate reasons have been thrown around, yet the people’s depressed productivity proves that they are not worth their salt.

Nepotism, favouritism, ‘carpet interviews’, feigned sicknesses, fraud, and all the ills associated with unethical practices exhibited by humans acting as agents would all be thrown out the window when an organization automates its services, in spite of the cons associated with such a switch.

In the next instalment, we will take a trip down memory lane and explore once respectable professions that were overtaken by technology.

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