Local voices discuss the labour and business implications of artificial intelligence

By Kyriacos Nicolaou

The seemingly sudden yet profound market penetration of artificial intelligence has caused tremors in both the public and private sectors, resulting in drastic changes for businesses and organisations that are now scrambling to reassess their models and operations.

Many questions remain without definitive answers, particularly on the effects of artificial intelligence on the labour market. The implications have the potential to be severe and far-reaching.

What is clear, however, is that employers are far more sanguine about AI’s impact than trade unions.

Companies may freeze or scale back their hiring, existing employees may be let go, departments and roles may be restructured, and some positions may be abolished altogether.

“On the one hand, AI is expected to disrupt jobs leading to job displacement, and as machines and algorithms become more sophisticated, more jobs may be at risk of automation,” said Polis Peratikos, a senior officer at the Cyprus Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Keve).

“But on the other, since AI can streamline workflows and increase productivity, it has the potential to increase economic growth and create new jobs, especially in the areas of machine learning, data science and programming,” he added, noting that this requires workers to acquire more skills to remain employable in an AI-driven world, leading to increasing demand for training programmes.

“AI is expected to increase the need for jobs, at least in the short run and during the transition period,” he said, adding that the use of AI also has the potential to transform workplaces into being more flexible and more remote.

Head of human resources at the Cyprus Employers & Industrialists Federation (OEB) Maria Theodorou said OEB is following developments closely, actively participating in the EU’s efforts to shape the skills needed in the labour market.

“As AI is still in its early stages, its impact on the labour market cannot be accurately projected. Experts, however, expect that its uncontrolled use can potentially be destructive not only for the labour market but also, for humanity in general,” Theodorou explained.

“Its attribute of emerging more rapidly than other technologies is fascinating yet terrifying. For the time being, we are witnessing the automation of repetitive tasks, the use of chatbots and virtual customer service not only in the services sector but throughout the economy,” she added.

Theodorou said that this will likely result in job displacement for low-skilled employees, mainly in the services sector. However, the use of AI will also generate new employment opportunities in positions where employees more heavily apply their transversal skills, such as critical and innovative thinking, which are harder to be replaced by AI.

“At the same time, the fast and adaptive evolution of AI systems will require professionals to utilise and maintain them in the workplace. Therefore, the need for professionals to be able to work alongside and with AI will increase,” she stated.

She added that the EU is heavily investing funds, especially during the European Year of Skills, for the digital upskilling and reskilling of individuals.

But this positive spin failed to reassure labour union PEO.

“Millions of jobs will become precarious or disappear altogether, resulting in increased unemployment, primarily in the services sector,” said union rep Pieris Pieri.

“At the same time, many skills that societies have invested time and effort in mastering, will become redundant and, consequently, lost, and this will lead to further devaluation of labour.”

He urged the state to address the issue of tackling unemployment by providing proper training and education.

“Some argue that new jobs will be created. However, the question is what kind of jobs will these be, and how much will the workers benefit from them?”

Sotiris Pafitis, the founder of Limassol-based SCP Academy, which specialises in training IT professionals is understandably more upbeat and believes that AI will have transformative effects on the labour market, particularly in the services sector.

“AI technology has the potential to revolutionise business operations, enabling greater efficiency and productivity,” he said.

“AI can enhance decision-making, streamline processes, and create new jobs that leverage human skills such as critical thinking, innovation and empathy,” he added, noting that AI holds the potential to enhance job quality, improve customer experiences, and drive economic growth.

The impact on size

In terms of the impact on the size of companies, Keve’s Peratikos said that while automation and efficiency will increase, this will not inherently result in smaller organisations. In fact, he continued, AI can help organisations grow by streamlining processes and enhancing decision-making, potentially leading to better results.

Theodorou explained that although AI may have the potential of upending the labour market, it is unlikely to completely replace humans.

“Its impact on staff size will vary across industries, organisations, and job positions, however, the human touch, at least for the foreseeable future, will remain irreplaceable and valuable in various service-oriented roles, such as healthcare providers, therapists, and customer relationship managers,” she said.

“As such, the services sector will continue to rely on a combination of human and AI capabilities, to meet the diverse needs of customers, although none has a clear picture of how exactly the future will be shaped in the long term.”

PEO’s Pieri was more downbeat.

“The shift towards AI and the application of new technologies in the production process, in order to maximise profits, will probably lead to a reduction in human labour and, consequently, the size of companies,” he said.

“We believe that a shift is needed from the current neoliberal policies in place, which increase inequalities and unemployment, towards a new labour framework that will not only guarantee fundamental labour and trade union rights, particularly pertaining to flexible forms of employment, but will also keep workers and their social needs at its core.”

With the integration of AI, companies and organisations are poised for positive transformation rather than mere downsizing, ACP Academy’s Pafitis said.

“While certain roles may evolve or become redundant, AI also creates new job opportunities, especially in areas such as AI development, data analysis, and algorithm management,” he said.

“As AI advances, it is important to foster a balanced approach, ensuring that the workforce is equipped with the necessary skills through training and upskilling initiatives,” he added.

He agreed that regulation should be adopted but should focus on fostering responsible AI adoption, addressing ethical considerations, and promoting fair employment practices.

How will AI affect expectations?

It has been well-established that AI tools have already provided a boost in productivity for certain workers. However, will this be the case going forward, or will employers expect more from the same number of people?

Peratikos believes that employers will expect different deliverables from their employees. Humans will be responsible to train machines, explain the outcomes and sustain their correct and ethical use, but AI can boost people’s analytic and decision-making abilities as well as increase creativity.

Citing the Harvard Business Review, Peratikos shared the following quote: “[machines] amplify our cognitive strengths; interact with customers and employees to free us for higher-level tasks; and embody human skills to extend our physical capabilities.”

He added that “consequently, what is expected is that job descriptions will change, individual targets will be amended, and people will focus on different, more creative and less low-level tasks. This is good, right?”

OEB’s Theodorou argued that employers are positive by nature, and have been embracing change and technology with ease to ensure maximised productivity and cited the pandemic as an example.

“One can reflect on the very recent win-win case, where employers instantly embraced digitalisation during the pandemic period, which resulted in improved work-life balance and related policies for employees, for example, the option to work from home,” she said.

“Open-minded employers will continue to foster a sound work environment with positive returns to the organisation and to its employees.”

She stressed that OEB will actively support these efforts, “as organisations travel through this uncharted, artificial, and yet very real territory”.

But Pieri said that the automation of production is similar to the use of the first machines, aiming at increasing output.

“The application of AI in the production process does not change the exploitative character or production relations,” he said.

“Automation will continue to increase profits and reduce the share of labour in the produced income, while on the other hand, inequalities will deepen.”

Pafitis, meanwhile, said that the expected time-saving will allow employees to redirect their efforts towards more meaningful and strategic endeavours, noting that AI complements human capabilities.

“Employers who embrace AI understand its value in augmenting human potential rather than simply demanding more output,” Pafitis stated.

But on one crucial point all commentators agree. The fast-paced development of AI technology has also raised concerns about its potential negative impact on society, privacy and security.

“The need for regulation is a necessity, to ensure ethically, safe, and responsible development as well as use,” Peratikos said.

“Some major concerns have to do with AI violating the right to privacy, non-discrimination and transparency. These risks need to be addressed and regulated, especially in critical sectors such as healthcare and finance, among others.”

In addition, he said that the ability of AI to make decisions that affect people’s lives needs to be seriously discussed, especially since it is difficult to hold it accountable.