From The Straits Times    |

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If the early 2000s were marked by FOMO (fear of missing out), then the 2020s will be defined by its much more worrying counterpart, FOBO, or the fear of becoming obsolete.

FOBO first emerged in 2023, when global education and technology company Cengage coined the term to describe one’s anxiety of AI and technological advancements making their skills obsolete.

A 2023 Gallup survey, which polled 1,000 workers in the US, revealed that 22 per cent are worried about AI’s impact on their job security, highlighting a growing apprehension about technology’s influence on employment.

FOBO is not exactly a new phenomenon, but its prevalence has grown tremendously over the period between 2021 and 2023 – interestingly, coinciding with the mainstream adoption of generative AI, with the launch of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in November 2022. Attesting to its growing prevalence, The Financial Times reported in March 2024 that Singapore’s Temasek Holdings is in discussions to invest in OpenAI, which is also backed by Microsoft.

Besides chatbots driven by AI, such as ChatGPT and Google’s Gemini, there are a plethora of other AI tools making their mark in the workplace across different industries. Virtual assistants like Amazon Alexa for Business, Google Assistant, and Microsoft Cortana are increasingly integrated into workplace environments to streamline tasks such as scheduling meetings, managing calendars, and retrieving information.

Tasks like content analysis, customer feedback analysis, and information extraction can be performed by Natural Language Processing (NLP) tools such as IBM Watson NLP, Google Cloud Natural Language, and Spacy. Then, of course, there are the image generating tools such as Midjourney, DALL-E, and Stable Diffusions. They can create custom images, and deliver new methods for the creation of special effects, thus increasing creativity and efficiency.

Understanding FOBO

A 2023 global study by consultancy firm KPMG, which surveyed over 17,000 respondents from 17 countries, found that two in five workers believed AI would replace jobs in their area of work. In Singapore, that amounted to 44 per cent of the 1,000 respondents. Additionally, half of the respondents – who ranged from 18- to 91-years-old, with the mean age being 44 – felt they lacked understanding of AI’s applications.

“We are witnessing the consumerisation of AI in the workplace as demand to use generative AI continues to grow,” Salesforce Asean’s senior vice-president and general manager Sujith Abraham noted when the results were published. “Rather than dismiss this and the potential benefits of generative AI, businesses should employ a strategy that’s grounded in trust to safeguard against the risks that come with any new technology.”

Career and life coach Kelly Chan acknowledges the concerns over upskilling at work, noting that AI is a recurring topic among her clients. “Many feel that learning AI could advance their careers, but hesitate due to perceived intimidation,” she explains. The reluctance stems from feeling overwhelmed, and viewing AI proficiency as a challenge.

A 2023 survey by global tech giant Salesforce and Yougov found that a significant portion of Singapore workers expressed worries about falling behind in AI usage at work, with 32 per cent even considering changing jobs if training on AI is not provided. And 67 per cent of respondents view companies that invest in and incorporate generative AI policies and practices as more attractive places to work at. Also, 31 per cent would consider leaving their employers if generative AI workflows are not prioritised.

Interestingly, the 2023 Gallup survey also revealed that Gen Zs are particularly susceptible to FOBO. It makes sense – born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s, they are the first generation to grow up entirely in the digital age. They are deeply immersed in technology from young, making them more aware of and sensitive to technological advancements and their potential impact on the workforce. There’s a strong likelihood that generative AI in the workplace will realise its potential by the time Gen Zs fully enter the workforce.

“We grew up in a world where technology evolves at breakneck speed, so this is nothing new. However, seeing the headlines about generative AI taking over the workplace can be quite scary, especially when I think about my future career progression,” says Zoey Lee, a 26-year-old creative currently working in marketing.

“We’re facing the prospect of entering the workforce just as these technologies become mainstream. On one hand, we’re digital natives, but on the other hand, we fear being rendered obsolete before we even get started.”

Gen AI and its impact

These fears are not unfounded. Take, for instance, the manufacturing sector, where robotics and AI-driven machinery have streamlined production processes, and reduced the need for manual labour. Tasks once performed by human workers, such as assembly line operations and quality control checks, can be executed with greater precision and efficiency by automated systems.

While this technological advancement has enhanced productivity and output, it has also led to workforce downsizing and restructuring.

“It has been challenging since I was laid off in the shipping industry due to the integration of AI,” shares Shirley Ng, a 52-year-old former logistics coordinator at a major shipping company. The introduction of AI-driven systems has transformed the way logistics operations are managed, leading to increased efficiency and cost savings for companies. “But this also meant that tasks I once performed, such as route optimisation and cargo tracking, are now automated. Therefore, there’s no need to keep headcounts, and teams can be downsized.” She is now training to become a part-time nurse for elderly care.

The rise of generative AI has also permeated creative industries, such as graphic design and content creation, posing both opportunities and challenges. With AI-powered tools capable of generating high-quality designs, articles, and music compositions using natural language processing and image recognition, this raises concerns about the future of human creativity, and the risk of losing artistic integrity.

Ariel Yeo, a 24-year-old graphic designer working in an advertising firm, feels that Gen AI in the workplace is a “double-edged sword, as it brings both excitement and concern”. She herself uses Midjourney for ideas and inspiration, especially when she’s stuck in a creative rut, but emphasises that AI-generated work cannot be presented to clients.

“Ethical concerns may inevitably arise. While AI can aid in the creation process, there’s a concern that relying too heavily on AI-generated content may compromise the authenticity and originality of the final product,” she shares. “As designers, we must carefully navigate these ethical considerations, ensuring that our work maintains integrity, and aligns with the values and expectations of our clients and the broader creative community.”

And it’s not just manufacturing and the creative industries – generative AI has the potential to impact virtually every industry by automating tasks and augmenting human decision-making processes.

In 2023, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna announced that the company was implementing a hiring pause, and intends to replace nearly 8,000 jobs with AI. He noted that back-office functions, particularly those in the HR sector, will be the first to see these changes implemented.

Following IBM’s lead, Swedish buy-now-pay-later firm Klarna announced a hiring freeze in December 2023 as tools like OpenAI’s ChatGPT streamlined the company’s operational tasks, reducing the need for additional manpower.

In January, language-learning software company Duolingo made adjustments to its contractor workforce, choosing not to renew contracts for approximately 10 per cent of its contractors. “We just no longer need as many people to do the type of work some of these contractors were doing. Part of that could be attributed to AI,” a spokesperson told Bloomberg, though they emphasised that Duolingo does not have a hiring freeze in place, and is actively recruiting for a wide range of roles.

Using AI to give you an edge at work

This isn’t a reason to panic, though. The World Economic Forum’s 2023 Jobs of Tomorrow white paper notes that there are some roles AI will never be able to replace – such as those in agriculture and education. These sectors are even expected to see growth as they require physical dexterity and mobility, as well as human skills such as empathy, which remain outside the skill set of AI.

The white paper also found that AI will create new fields of work, with emerging fields like “trainers” (the people developing AI), “explainers” (the people making AI easy to use for members of the public by designing the interfaces that enable people to interact with AI), and “sustainers” (those who make sure that AI systems are being used in the best way possible, such as content creators, data curators, and ethics and governance specialists).

In a panel discussion on AI held last year for the Her World Mentorship Programme 2023, Leanne Robers, co-founder and co-CEO of She Loves Tech, emphasised that there’s no need to fear AI, or worry that it will replace our jobs. “AI is not going to rule our personal lives, corporate lives, or this country. That is not what AI is,” shares the tech entrepreneur. “AI is a tool built by humans, so the extent of how good AI is depends on the people who built it.” At its core, she explained, AI is a tool designed to augment human intelligence and improve efficiency.

When it comes to FOBO, it’s all about switching mindsets. Think of AI as a tool in the workplace, and see how it can help you to develop more complex and marketable skills.

When I ask ChatGPT whether humans should fear AI taking their jobs, its response pretty much sums it up: “As an AI language model, I don’t have desires, consciousness, or intentions of my own. Ultimately, while there are legitimate concerns about job displacement due to AI, it’s important to approach the issue with a balanced perspective. “Rather than fearing AI outright, it may be more productive to focus on how we can harness its potential to create a better future for workers and society as a whole.”