One of the biggest questions created by artificial intelligence is what it will mean for work: Will AI cause mass unemployment or improve the jobs that are available? Will computer programming skills become obsolete? And which fields of study should college students focus on?
The answers to many of these questions may not be knowable yet, but that doesn’t mean business leaders shouldn’t be thinking about them.
“I think we’re woefully unprepared,” said Atif Rafiq, founder and CEO of Ritual.work and author of “Decision Sprint,” at Fortune’s Brainstorm AI conference in San Francisco on Monday. “Organizations are not preparing their teams to tap AI to do it better and smarter, but on top of that, it’s a vulnerability for the workforce because AI, I think, is the ultimate bar-raiser,” Rafiq said.
Ratiq spoke alongside Shane Luke, VP and head of AI at Workday, and Erik Brynjolfsson, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI (HAI), for a conversation on the economic impacts of AI on the workforce, moderated by Fortune editor Jeff John Roberts. Together, they discussed how companies can get ahead of these problems, the impacts on recruiting, and what skills will be most valuable in an AI world.
Given AI’s ability to take over repetitive and straightforward tasks, the panelists agreed that there will be an increased need for human workers to sharpen their critical thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving skills—and no, they don’t think software engineering roles will lose value, even as generative AI proves its ability to code.
While the guest speakers all agreed AI will be massively disruptive to the workforce, they largely positioned AI as an augmenter of jobs that will help people do their jobs better. In terms of recruiting, for example, Workday’s Luke pitched AI as an enabler that would help companies review all candidates’ application materials even as hiring managers and recruiters continue to make the hiring decisions. Similarly, Brynjolfsson foresees that AI will usher in an era of upskilling people into new roles, which AI can help with, too, of course.
“I don’t really see the mass unemployment or mass replacement of full occupations, but I see a specific type will be enabled by this technology and people who can look at the large scale problem-solving, broad creativity, how to apply these technologies in new ways, and how your skills augment, are going to do really well,” he said.
According to 2023 findings from Pew Research Center, 19% of Americans are in roles that are at high risk of being replaced by AI, including specific professions like budget analysts, tax preparers, technical writers, and web developers.
Acknowledging that the technology is advancing rapidly with even more impressive abilities coming down the pipeline, Brynjolfsson said that actually capturing the value of the technology is the real challenge.
“The technology is advancing very fast. What we’ve seen already is impressive, but there are things in the pipeline that can blow that away,” he said. “The bottleneck is in transferring that into changes in business organization and capturing value.”
Read more from the Fortune Brainstorm AI conference:
Box CEO Aaron Levie’s top takeaway from OpenAI meltdown: ‘Don’t have weird corporate structures’
Google VP Sissie Hsiao: the Gemini AI demo video ‘is completely real,’ though Google ‘did shorten parts for brevity’
Khan Academy’s founder says AI ‘coaches’ will soon submit essays to teachers instead of students