IBM chief says it might be ‘a good thing’ that robots will replace a ton of white collar jobs

Arvind Krishna, IBM chairman and CEO
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images

With A.I.-powered products like ChatGPT and Google’s Bard already seeping into the workplace, how long will it be until machines replace us? 

Robots aren’t ready to take all of our jobs just yet. A.I.-powered machines are still prone to misinformation, and companies that have tapped ChatGPT to write articles and code have eventually had to rely on their human staff to correct A.I.’s mistakes. Tests pitting humans against ChatGPT have proved that humans can still outperform A.I. in most cases. 

But the CEO of IBM not only thinks that current A.I. models could already be coming for some jobs, but we should probably welcome it if we want to avoid a looming worldwide labor crisis. 

“I do think clerical white-collar work is going to be able to be replaced by this,” Arvind Krishna, chairman and CEO of IBM, told the Financial Times in an interview published Thursday. In any large company, simply “getting the information together” before making any major administrative decision can be a time-consuming and labor-intensive task, Krishna said, but A.I.’s speed and efficiency means that type of work will likely be the first to be automated. 

Experts have warned for a while that A.I. could soon threaten clerical and administrative jobs. “A.I. will increasingly replace repetitive jobs, not just for blue-collar work, but a lot of white-collar work,” Kai-Fu Lee, a venture capitalist focused on A.I., said in 2019

Companies are exploring how to integrate A.I. to improve their efficiency, but removing bureaucracy may also mean removing jobs that might not come back. 

“I think there’s a risk that ChatGPT makes us a lot more productive in easy-to-do stuff, but the hard part to figure out is how we can use A.I. to create innovation that then creates new occupations and new industries,” Carl Benedikt Frey, an Oxford economist who 10 years ago predicted automation would wipe out 47% of U.S. jobs, told Fortune earlier this month.

IBM’s Krishna told the FT that “regulatory work,” from audits at financial firms to medicinal research in health care, are also likely to be automated away at some point in the future, but he argued the job market disruption will not necessarily be a bad thing.

“We do have a shortage of labor in the real world, and that’s because of a demographic issue that the world is facing. So we have to have technologies that help,” Krishna said. In the U.S. and much of the developed world, labor markets are set to become progressively tighter in the coming decades as the retirement-age group swells and the working-age population becomes thinner. 

In the U.S., years of declining birth rates have sparked fears of a shrinking labor force in the coming decades. Drops in birth rates and low immigration levels during the pandemic led to population growth in the country nearly flatlining in 2021, before marginally recovering last year as immigration rates picked up again. But the U.S. demographic shift may have already begun, as employers struggle to add young workers as an increasing number of older Americans leave the workforce.

The effects of a global demographic shift are already playing out in countries like China and Japan, and many more countries in the world are preparing for how to survive in a future where there aren’t enough young people to fill jobs. Some governments have resorted to measures like offering families money to have more kids and promoting immigration, but automating away jobs that can be done by machines may be an inevitable option.

“Maybe we can find tools that replace some portions of labor, and it’s a good thing this time,” Krishna said.

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