Much has been made of the potential for people to lose their jobs to machines but, according to a senior tech executive, it’s all about having employees use artificial intelligence themselves. 

“AI is not going to replace managers but managers that use AI will replace those that do not,” Rob Thomas, senior vice president of IBM’s cloud and data platform, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” on Monday.

“This really is about giving our employees, our executives, superpowers … One of the biggest things we saw take off with the pandemic was virtual assistants, so how do you care for employees, how do you care for customers in a distributed world and that’s why we’ve seen hundreds of different organizations going live with things like Watson Assistant,” Thomas added, referring to the company’s AI customer service software.

Technology is set to have a significant effect on employees. Machines and automation are set to eliminate 85 million jobs by 2025, according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020, published in October, although overall WEF expects 97 million new jobs to be created.

When asked whether AI automation would contribute to job losses, Thomas said human employees’ roles would likely change. “We’ve done a lot of work with (U.K. retail bank) NatWest and they’re using AI to help their customer service. Now, are they automating some customer service tasks? Absolutely, but then they could take all of their customer service employees and have them work on the hardest problems, which means now they’re seeing an increase in customer satisfaction,” he said about the potential outcomes of automating tasks.

NatWest has developed its Cora customer service chatbot with IBM and it saw increased demand during the pandemic, with chats increasing from around 420,000 a month to 950,000 a month, according to a NatWest Group spokesperson. “Deploying Cora during this period of extremely high customer need meant we could serve the growing demands for support at pace,” the spokesperson added.

The bank wants Cora to be its “leading point of contact for all customers in all channels” by 2025, according to an IBM blog post.

In England, 1.5 million people could have their jobs replaced by technology such as robots or computer programs, according to a 2019 report by the Office for National Statistics, with 55% of customer service jobs at risk.

NatWest cut more than 500 jobs in August as banks looked to reduce costs due to the pandemic.

Thomas said AI would add to human roles. “It’s about changing the roles that humans play in organizations, but this is additive, this is about giving humans super powers, giving you a better way to automate the task that people don’t really want to do in the first place.”

Last month, IBM said it would buy Instana, a firm that helps businesses manage data across a variety of cloud applications in different places (terms of the deal were not disclosed).

“Think of AI as the ingredient inside of everything that a company is doing, whether it’s a move to cloud or business acceleration. One of the fields we’re seeing the fastest acceleration is a field called AIOps, and this is about using AI to improve your technology or your IT systems … (Instana) is all about helping clients manage their cloud environments, manage the software that they have,” Thomas said.

IBM announced in October it would spin off its managed infrastructure services unit into a new public company, to focus more on its higher-margin cloud and AI capabilities.

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Jenny Dominguez

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