With the advent of self-driving vehicles, social media algorithms, smart assistants and sophisticated chatbots, artificial intelligence (AI) is no longer just a science fiction theme, but a permanent fixture of the global economy.
Recent journal articles have even highlighted how ChatGPT, a chatbot launched by OpenAI in November, performed "at or near" the passing threshold for the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam, and scored a B on the final exam in an operations management course at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.
"ChatGPT has shown a remarkable ability to automate some of the skills of highly compensated knowledge workers in general and specifically the knowledge workers in the jobs held by MBA graduates," University of Pennsylvania professor Christian Terwiesch wrote in the latter whitepaper.
"ChatGPT has demonstrated the capability of performing professional tasks such as writing software code and preparing legal documents."
So is AI on track replace humans in a wide range of industries?
Experts say it might not change the net number of jobs available, but it could drive humans to shift toward more specialized knowledge industry roles.
Kiljon Shukullari is a human resources advisory manager at HR consulting firm Peninsula Canada who says AI has already begun to take on tasks formerly performed by humans in a number of industries.
"The fear out there is that AI will ultimately replace people. And it could be true for certain tasks, certain jobs, if they are repetitive in nature," he told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview on Friday.
"There's a variety of areas where we have seen it already."
For example, Shukullari said, AI-driven programs excel at repetitive tasks that can be easily automated, like transcription, translation, scheduling, responding to basic queries and processing, analyzing and extrapolating data. For this reason, they're already being put to use in public health, robotics, customer service and e-commerce.
During the pandemic, Shukullari said, public health agencies used algorithmic programs to plan for and respond to the spread of COVID-19.
"The AI would allow them to extrapolate the data and provide some kind of a report on where we go next and what to expect," he said.
On the retail front, many brands have AI-powered chatbots available 24/7 to field basic customer service questions. Then, there's e-commerce and the world of social media and search engine algorithms.
"In e-commerce, a lot of big players have used AI to kind of understand individuals' habits of purchase and browsing, and how purchases or purchase decisions are made."
In the future, AI could assume a greater role in industries like trucking and logistics, banking and investment, industries with a lot of administrative work and those where the work is considered hazardous or dangerous, he said.
The degree to which AI takes over a given job will depend on factors like the number of tasks associated with that job that are well-suited to it, says University of Toronto professor Anil Verma.
Verma teaches industrial relations and human resources management at the Rotman School of Management, and specializes in the impact of AI and digital technologies on skills and jobs.
"AI is good for replacing tasks, not jobs," he told CTVNews.ca on Thursday. "A job consists of several tasks, and some jobs may be affected heavily, in the sense that 80, 90 or eventually 100 per cent of the tasks can be performed by a bot."
For example, he said it's not too far-fetched to think self-driving vehicles could eventually replace human drivers in industries like transportation and logistics. "Then there will be some jobs that will be affected to a smaller extent. So five, 10 or even 20 per cent of my job could be taken over by AI."
It might not outright replace humans in many roles, Verma said, but by taking on some of their more simple, repetitive tasks, AI will allow them to work more efficiently, reducing the need for as many workers on any given payroll.
Despite the inevitability of AI-driven job cuts, Verma doesn't believe the technology will result in a net loss of jobs. On the contrary, while the number of job openings in some sectors might shrink as companies increase their reliance on AI, the technology will generate new jobs in other sectors.
He gave the evolution of telecommunications as an example.
Telecommunications companies employ far fewer telephone operators now than they did before the advent of the internet and digital communication, but the evolution of telecommunications to include these new technologies has created a whole host of other jobs.
"As the industry expands, it wants more people," Verma said. "So we are gradually eliminating low-end jobs and creating high-end jobs, and that makes us more prosperous and increases the average income of people."
Not everyone will benefit from the rising tide of prosperity brought about by an AI revolution, warns Andrew Piper, professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Montreal's McGill University.
Piper isn't thinking AI will replace humans on a large scale so much as that the technology's use in many industries will create more exclusive, higher-skilled opportunities for some, while leaving others behind.
"To think that this highly-centralized technology is suddenly going to have this democratizing effect has very little historical precedent," he told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Thursday.
"It's much more likely that it will concentrate power or concentrate wealth, concentrate expertise."
Those who can, he said, will earn an education in science, technology, engineering, math and computer science, or will otherwise adapt their skills later in life to evolve with their industries. Those who struggle to adapt will have fewer and poorer prospects.
"We know education is not equally distributed in all societies. And so it's clearly going to have a 'have and have not' effect, like past technologies. And that's something that that is worth thinking through."
In its 2016 World Development Report, the World Bank warned that technology plays a role in eroding income generation among lower income earners, while concentrating profits within the private sphere and into the hands of a privileged few.
"While digital technologies raise productivity and enhance overall welfare, labour market disruptions can be painful and can result in higher inequality," the report said.
It warned technological advancement had hollowed out labour markets in both advanced and emerging economies, leading to an increase in high-skilled and low-skilled jobs and a decrease in middle-skilled employment. In many emerging economies, it said, middle-skilled employment accounts for a large share of income distribution.
Further, the report said nearly 60 per cent of the world’s population was still offline and unable to participate in the digital economy in any meaningful way.
While Verma believes in the power of cutting-edge technologies like AI to drive economic progress, he agrees with Piper that progress will not be distributed evenly.
"Today, literacy means you know how to access email, how to use a smartphone, and things like that. So there is a group of people who are being left behind. And because of the acceleration in technology, there is a danger that this layer, the bottom layer will grow in size," Verma said.
"I believe we should push the technology envelope, we should push people to learn new skills, but we should have a bigger safety net for people who are not able to keep up on this learning curve."