The rise of the machines: will AI take all the jobs in telecoms?

The rise of the machines: will AI take all the jobs in telecoms?
As telcos start rolling out AI and chatbots into their business processes, what jobs will be left once the crest of the automation wave has crashed onto the shores of telecoms? And will the industry be worse off for it?

Could artificial intelligence (AI) usher in an age of Fully Automated Luxury Communism, or will the dole queue grow longer and longer as more of us are replaced by AI?

BT’s recent announcement that it’s to cut up to 55,000 jobs globally by the end of the decade, has left many in the sector wondering how secure their jobs are. Once the company’s fibre network expansion is complete, it will reportedly need 15,000 fewer employees to roll out the new and maintain the old network.

But it’s reportedly artificial intelligence that’ll put up to 25,000 customer service jobs at risk as the company pursues an AI-focused strategy for the 2030s. Chief executive Philip Jansen is aiming for a “much smaller workforce” and a “significantly reduced cost base,” adding that the company will be a “beneficiary of AI – unequivocally.”

The same can’t be said for its human workforce.

The news came hot on the heels of Vodafone’s announcement that it too would axe a tenth of its own workforce over three years, equivalent to 11,000 jobs across Europe. Margherita Della Valle, Vodafone’s chief executive, said “We will simplify our organisation, cutting out complexity to regain our competitiveness… [and] reallocate resources to deliver the quality service our customers expect.”

Though there’s been no mention of AI yet from Vodafone, it’s not hard to imagine a Large Language Model (LLM) stepping in to pick up the slack. Previously, the firm had committed to adding 7,000 new software engineers, half of whom would come from the reskilling of current employees.

This must leave the big shots in telecoms thinking: is AI the answer to efficient automation? And everyone else in the industry must be asking – with learn to code no longer a safe option – is it time to look into plumbing as a new career path?

Automatic for the People

Automation and emerging technologies have already had a profound impact on the industry and its workers, with some skills becoming obsolete as other, newer skills grow in demand. We’re being told that AI will in fact be a job creator rather than a job killer – “we just don’t know what [in],” according to Jansen.

He isn’t alone in his assessment, with the more optimistically-minded saying that generative AI will enhance rather than erase customer service jobs, streamlining more tedious tasks so workers can focus on more meaningful and higher value interactions, and those remaining customer agents using chatbots to troubleshoot problems.

Goldman Sachs has offered up a bleaker outlook, stating that AI could outright replace 300 million jobs worldwide – and there are signs this has already begun. Though, with the tech sector laying off so many staff already, it can be hard to pick apart AI-fuelled job losses from the VC tap running dry.

BT’s supposed AI-driven staff reduction is a continuation of the firm’s already trending-downward headcount, which has been falling since 2018. Verizon, meanwhile, is cutting jobs the old fashioned way: offshoring thousands of customer service roles.

Telefónica CEO José María Álvarez-Pallete has stressed that “re-skilling and technology are part of the solution” to moderate the harmful effects of automation on the labour market, while making the best of the new job opportunities that digitalisation is creating.

Meanwhile, Deutsche Telekom announced it was developing a network that can function with “no human involvement,” its deputy Chief Technology Officer declaring that the company could only succeed through “brutal automation.”

Though there will always be a place for manual workers performing critical maintenance up poles and down holes, the networks themselves could potentially be run entirely by AI, with minimal oversight.

Telcos can already automate many customer-facing processes and move beyond just providing connectivity, monetising emerging technologies to unlock new revenue opportunities and develop new products through insourcing talent, and investing in their engineering teams.

However, the most apparent “benefit” of automation comes with the cost saving from cutting jobs, but will slashing staff headcount translate to an uptick in sales?

Though mass redundancies are unlikely (at least in the short term), the smaller job pool and gradual deskilling of the wider workforce in the future could harm the industry further down the road, stifling innovation; AI is great at reconstituting and recontextualising old information, but it isn’t so good at creating something completely new.

The Uncanny Valley

Time and time again, surveys have found that most consumers prefer dealing with real people. Despite being bombarded with digital facsimiles of sales and support agents, customers are averse to human-like technology due to, it’s theorised, “a perceived loss of human uniqueness and expectations of immediate physical harm.”

The right balance between achieving human-like interactions and avoiding the “Uncanny Valley” is crucial; by setting realistic expectations and being transparent about their limitations, these chatbots can provide a more comfortable user experience.

In fact, a study by the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI found that the average worker wasn’t necessarily more productive, but was happier, with an AI chatbot in the backseat, while novice workers benefitted most from the support.

Whilst this change will be tumultuous, we’ll come to look back on this in the way we’ve viewed other forms of automation – after all, few if any, are yearning for the return of the manual switchboard (except for legions of redundant switchboard operators). If we know these potentially seismic changes are coming, we can pivot to re-education and re-training to mitigate the impact on staff and deliver a superior level of service to customers too.

Conversation stoppers

AI is undoubtedly bringing about significant opportunities, though it is not without risks.

The vulnerability to hacking or malicious interference of AI systems could have severe consequences. Moreover, without adequate oversight, the erroneous decision-making inherent to AI systems may, if left unaddressed, have unintended consequences, perpetuating discrimination and inequality.

Striking the right balance between human judgment and AI assistance is crucial to ensure accountability, fairness, and the preservation of human values in decision-making processes; although AI has demonstrated the ability to process vast amounts of data and make predictions resembling artificial intelligence, AI should not be entrusted with important decisions, and a degree of human oversight retained.

It's crucial that a robust regulatory framework addresses issues such as data privacy and accountability for AI decision-making. It’s essential that businesses and governments adopt proactive measures, prioritising the security of AI systems by implementing robust cybersecurity measures.

AI is absolutely going to change the work landscape and how jobs are done over the next few years, in both the telecoms industry and beyond, but businesses can’t expect to replace all their human workers with chatbots and assume things will run ever smoothly thereafter.

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