Learn AI now or risk losing your job, experts warn

It’s smart, efficient and gaining speed. 

In fact, you might be surprised to hear how much of the workload artificial intelligence can already handle at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. 

“In our hospital, we have a saying that AI is not going to replace clinicians, but clinicians who use AI are going to replace clinicians who don’t use AI,” said Dr. Muhammad Mamdani, vice-president of data science and advanced analytics at Unity Health Toronto.

In a rapidly changing world surrounded by technology, this is a warning that workers in many industries may now need to take seriously. Artificial intelligence is here and experts say workers across most sectors — from finance to law to coding — now need to learn how to use AI themselves or risk being replaced.

“There is an urgent need for many people in the workforce to start taking artificial intelligence seriously — if they aren’t already. Learn how to use it so it isn’t used against you,” said Ottawa economist Armine Yalnizyan, who focuses on the future of work.

Unity Health Toronto, the hospital network that includes St. Michael’s, has a dedicated applied AI team and says it has launched more than 50 innovations since 2017.

“We have algorithms that are running, monitoring patients, every hour on the hour. It has reduced human effort on simple tasks by over 80 per cent. Tasks that normally take two to four hours every day by a few people, it’s reduced to under 15 minutes,” Mamdani said.

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In an era of chronic labour shortages in health care, the technology is offering huge relief to staff who Mamdani says can now better focus on patients while also saving lives.

But has it already replaced workers? Not yet, said Mamdani.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t.

The most recent Statistics Canada report in 2020 suggested up to 40 per cent of Canadian workers were at high to moderate risk of job transformation. Predictions on when that could happen range from five to 20 years. But there is evidence to show that shift is already occurring. 

Mamdani said St. Michael’s could reduce staffing by 20 to 30 per cent through efficiencies using things like natural language processing to go through data and collect information. 

Just one algorithm the hospital has at work now does a vast majority of scheduling for nurses, for example in the emergency room.

“It looks at historical data, all sorts of patterns. It scrapes the web for weather data to see if there’s going to be a snowstorm tomorrow night. It looks for events like marathons on Lakeshore Boulevard on Sunday,” said Mamdani.

“We can tell you Saturday, from noon to six, there’ll be 80 patients waiting in the emergency department. Ten of them will have mental health issues, 12 of them will be hard to treat.”

A man with greying hair and glasses, wearing a shirt and blazer, smiles at someone who cannot be seen in the photo.
Dr. Muhammad Mamdani, vice-president of data science and advanced analytics at Unity Health Toronto, said artificial intelligence is saving lives at St. Michael’s Hospital and warned that workers need to educate themselves on how to use this technology. (Robert Krbavac/CBC)

Mamdani is just one employer who is warning about what the future has in store. This transformation of work is happening in many fields beyond medicine, with uncertainty rising for some as they brace themselves for what comes next. 

Illustrator Martin Deschatelets is worried he won’t have a job next year. 

“I didn’t get as many contracts last year. Is it because buddy decided to do it himself, with the AI? I don’t know,” said Deschatelets, who lives in Ottawa.

“I only know a handful of people with jobs right now.”

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With the use of generative AI and the explosion of apps such as ChatGPT, Deschatelets said the reality of how quickly this technology is advancing hit him hard this year. 

Deschatelets said he felt a real sense of fear when people started writing “entire children’s books over a weekend” using AI. He has now seen AI make everything from logos to books to an entirely AI-generated episode of South Park, a popular U.S. television sitcom normally produced entirely by people. 

“In a generation from now, why would you want to become an artist? Why would you want to become a writer if a computer could just do it?” Deschatelets said.

Which jobs will be most affected?

The idea that AI is coming for white-collar jobs is not new. But experts say we don’t have the full understanding of what’s to come. 

“It is happening everywhere, in every industry. It’s happening to coders, it’s happening to translators, it’s happening to engineers, it’s happening to people working in law, it’s happening in every sector,” said Yalnizyan.

The most current version of artificial technology, Yalnizyan said, differs from what we’ve seen in the past.

“It is evolving very rapidly and in a way that is humanesque in its ability to almost think. We’re not there yet, but we might be moving there faster than anybody has anticipated. Never before in history have we been less sure of our predictions of what is about to happen, which means we should be much more cautious about how we are approaching it.” 

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Dr. Muhammad Mamdani said he sees a need for people to adapt to the changing technology.

So with that information, what do you tell an 18-year-old about the future of work? Would you tell them not to get into coding? Not to become a writer? An illustrator?

Yalnizyan points to the introduction of the calculator: there are still accounting jobs.

“It’s a tool that made everybody’s jobs easier and faster,” said Yalnizyan. 

But now imagine an accountant who chose not to learn how to use a calculator.

“We should all, especially young people, be much more conversant about technology, learn how to use it and work with it, especially in a world that is dominated by technology,” Yalnizyan said. 

Who needs to prepare?

There is an urgent need for 25- to 54-year-olds in particular to learn how to work with this technology, Yalnizyan said. Members of this group are already in the workforce but are the least likely to have learned AI while in school and will most likely need it for their jobs at some point. 

“Universities, colleges and high schools should be teaching every child everything they know about every generation of this technology because it is changing fast,” Yalnizyan said.

A woman wearing a flowery-patterned dress sits at a conference table and gestures with her hands as she speaks with a serious expression on her face.
Economist Armine Yalnizyan said it has never been more urgent for workers and students to educate themselves on how to use artificial intelligence if they want to survive in the workforce. (Robert Krbavac/CBC)

For people like Deschatelets, it doesn’t feel that straightforward.

“There’s nothing to adapt to. To me, writing in three to four prompts to make an image is nothing. There’s nothing to learn. It’s too easy,” he said. 

His argument is the current technology can’t help him — he only sees it being used to replace him. He finds AI programs that can prompt engineered images, for example, useful when looking for inspiration, but aside from that, it’s not much use.

“It’s almost treating art as if it’s a problem. The only problem that we’re having is because of greedy CEOs [of Hollywood studios or publishing houses] who make millions and millions of dollars, but they want to make more money, so they’ll cut the artists completely. That’s the problem,” he said.

‘Down to the bottom line’

Jeff Macpherson warns against that approach. 

“It comes down to the bottom line, and businesses as they grow that number need to get larger while things start getting cut. And they’re going to implement AI just because it’s cheaper, faster and it’s scalable,” he said.

Macpherson is a director and co-founder at Xagency.AI, an agency in the Greater Toronto Area that helps companies incorporate AI into their workforces in ways ranging from customer service centres to blogs and sales. 

“Do I have empathy [for] the fact that it can take people’s jobs? Yes. But there’s an opportunity for experts in their field — so writers, accountants, whoever — to get ahead of the technology and learn to make it work for them,” he said.

A man with short hair and a beard, wearing a light-coloured sweater, smiles at someone who cannot be seen to one side of the image.
Jeff MacPherson is a director and co-founder at Xagency.AI, which helps companies incorporate artificial intelligence into their workforces. (Robert Krbavac/CBC)

He echoed Mamdani and Yalnizyan, suggesting that the way forward for humans is learning to adapt and get on board with this technology.

Not all industries are equal

There will likely be variation in how this all shakes out. Not all industries are expected to see massive transformation. 

“Jobs that require manual work — so, construction workers, early childhood educators, nurses, support workers — those jobs are the least likely to need AI in any large capacity or to be displaced by AI,” Joel Blit, an associate professor of economics at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ont., said.

“Cognitive jobs tend to pay more — and so I don’t want to say you should go for the manual jobs to be safe. That is almost like saying don’t get an education because it’s going to be less risky.”

But Blit expects that over the next 40 years, there is going to be a tremendous job disruption.

The best thing students can do, he said, is “embrace the technology” and make sure to develop some broad, flexible skills — in areas such as entrepreneurship or cognitive thinking — so you can pivot if needed.

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Still, Blit has a concern about the future of AI.

“Any time there is a technology that is moving quickly it’s always going to be hard to keep up with regulation — the government needs to act.”

Blit said in the past it has been hard to get the federal government to take much action because it felt too far in the future, but there is a renewed and urgent interest as AI “exploded” overnight.

“The major thing that has changed is people can use it at their fingertips,” he said. “It used to only be corporations who were working with the technology.” 

There are risks to over-regulation, however. For one, Blit and Yalnizyan point out, Canada is in a race with the rest of the world to build smart technology. Too much regulation could prevent innovation or hold the country back if, for example, Canada decided to regulate certain elements of AI but another country didn’t.

“But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to protect the human impact, and we need to be thinking about that,” Blit said. 

“With every new technology, there are winners and losers. In order to prevent the human impact, we need to prepare with things like maintaining a generous social service net and thinking about retraining programs.”

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