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AI to transform workplaces, may threaten some jobs, panel says

Greg Ryan, left, and Aaron Dignan participate in

Greg Ryan, left, and Aaron Dignan participate in a panel discussion about offices of the future in Manhattan, on Tuesday, Dec.12, 2017. The panel was organized by Melville-based Canon USA. Credit: Bruce Gilbert

Artificial intelligence will change workplaces, transforming how people work, a panel of experts said.

The fast-evolving technology could mean pink slips for workers with routine responsibilities — but not for all workers, the experts said.

AI, in the form of robots, virtual assistants and intuitive office machines, will take over repetitive tasks now performed by office staff. This will give them additional time for more important duties.

AI “is already transforming a lot of business processes,” said Greg Ryan, head of Canon U.S.A.’s information and imaging solutions division. “In the office of the future, probably nothing will be left untouched. . . . But I’m not convinced that it is going to replace jobs.”

He was among four experts brought together by Canon to discuss the future of office work at a Tuesday event in Manhattan. Canon, the Japanese photography and office machines giant, has its Americas headquarters in Melville.

Ryan said AI could reduce the time that employees spend locating information and data, analyzing them and sharing them with business partners. He said, “That’s a huge timesaver, and the impact might be that the knowledge worker will be freed up to do more creative things.”

Aaron Dignan, founder of the consulting firm The Ready in Manhattan, said layoffs are inevitable with AI.

“It won’t affect people equally. . . . Extremely repetitive jobs, extremely routine jobs — I think there is pretty good evidence to suggest that those are going to be massively disrupted,” he told the audience of 30.

Executives are embracing AI in increasing numbers after years of skepticism and even fear, according to Holly Muscolino, a vice president at the research firm IDC in Framingham, Massachusetts. IDC conducted a survey of 500 U.S. technology executives in September for Canon.

She said 54 percent of the respondents predicted robots will eliminate many manual tasks in offices. Forty-one percent said they planned to bring AI to their company, and 42 percent said they would deploy virtual assistants.

The panelists agreed that more technology will change offices, but not lead to their demise.

“There’s always going to be a place where people are going to want to come together, need to come together,” said Bill Bouchey, a principal at the architecture and engineering firm HOK, based in St. Louis. However, the office of the future will probably be smaller and be adapted to cellphones, tablets and other mobile devices, he said.

Bouchey also predicted some big companies will jettison their one-size-fits-all headquarters in favor of smaller, regional offices. He said, “You’re going to want your workforce to be able to choose different settings to go to, depending on what they are doing” on a given day.

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