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AI: Opportunity or obsolescence for workers?

With AI technology fueling a revolution, companies and employees are looking at how — and if — humans can work alongside automation.

  • By Louis Llovio
  • | 5:00 a.m. June 9, 2023
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Robert Reffkin, CEO of the global real estate firm Compass, believes AI will simplify agents' lives and make them more productive.
Robert Reffkin, CEO of the global real estate firm Compass, believes AI will simplify agents' lives and make them more productive.
Courtesy photo
  • Technology
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For generations, teenagers have gotten their start in the working world at fast-food joints, taking orders, flipping burgers and manning the french fry bin. It’s a rite of passage for those looking to work after school or summers in order to save for college or a car or whatever cool gadget is out there at the moment.

Some kids in Ohio may lose out on that opportunity this summer, though.

Fast-food giant Wendy’s has announced it will begin using artificial intelligence to take drive-thru orders this month at its restaurants in the Columbus, Ohio, area. The pilot program, the company says, will use new generative AI to take orders and "to have conversations with customers, (create) the ability to understand made-to-order requests and generate responses to frequently asked questions."

In a statement, the chain’s president and CEO Todd Penegor says the experiment “creates a huge opportunity for us to deliver a truly differentiated, faster and frictionless experience for our customers, and allows our employees to continue focusing on making great food and building relationships with fans that keep them coming back time and again.”

Lost in that upbeat statement is the fact that by employing the technology the chain will have fewer employees on staff. And if the most cynical of cynics are correct, this is just a first step toward a new world where millions of people will lose their jobs as humans are replaced by technology.

Existential fears

Hyperbole? Maybe. But as artificial intelligence becomes a greater part of our lives at work, there are legitimate questions and concerns facing both employers and their employees. Chief among those is exactly how this new, and in many ways untested, technology will affect the day-to-day business of work and how executives will be able be to harness it to improve efficiencies — and their bottom lines.

Some analysts worry AI will usurp the human workforce, replacing people and professions with automation. And that goes beyond fast-food cashiers. It will be writers, customer service representatives, bookkeepers, billing clerks, lawyers. This list goes on.

Anecdotal evidence of the profound effect on employment abounds. 

Walking through Walmart in Tampa on a recent Sunday, the lines to use a dozen or so self-checkout machines were long, blocking aisles and stretching into women’s wear. This as a solitary cashier 50 yards away serviced a line with two customers. In between her and the self-checkout machines, a long row of cashier stations stood deserted, the lights off and no employees in sight.

And in March, at an Americas Best Value Inn in Fort Myers, the check-in counter was abandoned. Yours keys came from an automated kiosk manned by a man overseas who appeared but for a moment on the screen.

While these types of automated technologies have been around for a bit, and fears that modernization will eliminate jobs is nothing new, AI, with its ability to learn and adapt, is a new kind of dynamic. 

Go back to what Wendy’s is saying. It expects its AI system to have conversations with customers and to develop the ability to understand complicated orders, which is what humans do now under that age-old concept we like to call on-the-job training. The difference is, AI works longer without needing breaks and doesn’t call in sick, quit without warning, ask for raises or require health insurance.

Middle ground

But all those concerns may be for naught.

Unlike the naysayers and cynics, there are many others who see generative AI as something other than an existential threat.

“It’s a tool, and it has strengths and weaknesses,” says John Licato, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida’s department of computer science and engineering. “We just have to figure out how to use those strengths that complement our goals.”

To make his argument and to tone down the discourse he points to what’s happened in chess.

Licato says when chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against IBM’s supercomputer Deep Blue in the late 1990s people believed it was the end of chess. The thought was that people were creative and could use that creativity to form strategies and adapt. But here was a computer who was as, and in some cases more, creative as one the world's greatest chess players.

What’s happened in the years since Kasparov played Deep Blue, though, is “chess has undergone an amazing renaissance.”

“The current grand masters are people who grew up with access to these amazingly powerful AI tools, and it changed the way they play, but it didn’t kill the game,” Licato says.

“In fact, it made it more exciting to see that, while these two grand masters are playing, we can have the super chess engine on the side telling the audience how they’re doing relative to each other. I think it accentuated the game. It made the human element more interesting.”

That’s the argument many are making, that humans can harness AI and create an augmented workforce.

This is a world where humans and machines work together, with humans focusing more on tasks that require problem solving, creativity and interpersonal skills and automating other tasks.

To do this, says Boston-based consultants Bain & Co., requires companies and executive to get workers to change how they approach their jobs and to buy into new ways of doing. The firm published a report last month saying AI and other forms of automation creates an opportunity for executives to “think differently about the value their employees contribute.”

“Successful transformations will change the way employers manage and reward workers,” says Rasmus Wegener, who leads Bain’s digital platform Vector in the Americas.

“The real value of automation lies far beyond the traditional efficiency plays. When done right, automation enables employees to focus on truly human, high-value activities, creating what we call the ‘augmented workforce.’”

The Bain report projects workforce augmentation reduces costs by as much as 30%.

“Our research shows that many employees want to use automation, and that letting them do so will increase personal job satisfaction, improve customer experience and deliver better outcomes for shareholders,” says Wegener.

In real life

Beyond studies and theories, company executives and business owners are considering what the new AI technology means, albeit slowly. The concern? There are so many unknowns and that with so much hype — negative and positive — moving slowly is the best tactic.

Tampa-based Bloomin’ Brands CEO David Deno says there have been some discussions among executives at the company about implementing AI technology. For now the only certainty is that it can help with restaurant support services, including IT and accounting. “That office stuff? Definitely. For the restaurants, we’re trying to be really careful,” he says.

While being cautious, Deno does see AI has a place in the restaurants. He thinks, eventually, it can help with scheduling kitchen staff and making reservations as well as figuring out the pace to bring food out — all elements that improve the food and the experience for customers.

On the flip side is Roger Germann, CEO of The Florida Aquarium in Tampa. He believes given the aquarium’s work, it’s hard to imagine eliminating the human element. He says there have been some conversations about AI, but that they haven’t evolved beyond the talking stage.

“I think cultural attractions in general are going to have to figure this out because one of the things that makes us so unique is truly the personal interaction that is there,” he says.

“What we have said is that technology, and it could be AI at some point, really, truly serves as an enhancement to the experience here. But it should never, ever overtake, dictate and substitute for seeing a live animal up close, to being able to talk to somebody.”

Then there is Robert Reffkin, CEO of New York-based global real estate firm Compass.

Reffkin, on a recent visit to his firm's Sarasota office, says he believes AI, in his world, can mean agent intelligence. In that way it's a tool for agents to better manage time and generate more income. “I think AI is going to make professionals across many industries accomplish more.”

He says many tasks and activities agents spend a lot of time thinking about, AI can do significantly faster. ChatGPT, for example, can create listing descriptions quickly. The human element is still there because an agent has to feed it information and provide judgement, but the most time consuming work will be done by the technology.

“We're in the business of empowering real estate agents with technology to help them grow their business and have a better quality of life,” Reffkin says. “I think AI is going to take that to a whole different level.”

Whatever approach a company takes, and whatever one’s view on the technology is, the reality is AI in no longer science fiction. Whether most of our jobs will become obsolete or we will be better than ever are questions that can only be answered with time.

Interestingly, one of the first tests in learning how the reality-altering technology will affect our lives will be if a customer in Ohio gets the extra pickles he ordered on his Double Stack.     



Louis Llovio

Louis Llovio is the commercial real estate editor at the Business Observer. Before going to work at the Observer, the longtime business writer worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Maryland Daily Record and for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He lives in Tampa.

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