I’ve seen a lot of articles recently predicting that artificial intelligence will bring about a massive upheaval in the U.S. job market. Such predictions are not new, but the recent introduction of ChatGPT and other language models has elicited a new round of predictions. We already know that software can displace people. In 2019, Wells Fargo predicted that efficient software would replace 200,000 jobs in the banking industry. Much of this has already come to pass as software has replaced a lot of bond traders and behind-the-scenes analysts at banks. The question I’ve been pondering today is how artificial software will impact the telecom industry.
This industry has seen major retooling over the years. My first industry job was as an RF technician, and almost every function I tackled in the early 70s has been replaced by software. There is great software today that can pop out a propagation study or quickly estimate the link budget for a wireless connection. Similar changes have happened across most jobs in the industry. Folks proficient in copper technologies have been nearly phased out. There is no longer an army of certified Cisco techs working in every network engineering office. Rooms full of draftspeople have been replaced by fiber network design software.
Many of the past changes to industry jobs are solely due to the introduction of new technologies, such as copper jobs being replaced by fiber jobs. But a lot of the changes to jobs are due to productivity software, where computers can figure things out faster and more accurately than people.
The web is currently full of predictions that the next wave of innovations will impact office workers much more than craft jobs. Outside of the telecom industry, there are some drastic predictions of big changes in the next five years. One of the most immediate jobs that will be under fire is coders. There will always be a place for the smart innovators that come up with unique software ideas, but folks who write the fill-in code or people that debug software are likely to be replaced by AI software that can do the same functions faster and more accurately.
There are predictions that call centers will be emptied out over the next decade when voice software becomes as good at answering customer questions as a live person. The same is true for jobs that deal with a lot of paperwork. Jobs like paralegals, insurance claims specialists, and anything else that means processing repetitive information can be replaced by AI software.
One of the direst predictions is that AI can replace a lot of the work done by high-proficiency experts. For example, the prediction is that medical diagnosis software will be faster and far more accurate than doctors at diagnosing and recommending treatment for diseases. In the telecom world, this might mean replacing jobs like network engineers since software can monitor and react to network issues in real-time. A lot of this has already happened, and it’s amazing how few people it takes today to operate a NOC or data center.
Not all of the predictions are dour. I read one prediction that AI would eliminate 12 million U.S. over the next decade. But these predictions don’t talk about the new jobs that will be created in a world with prevalent AI. I don’t know what those jobs will be, but they are bound to materialize.
Innovation from AI is likely to impact large corporations far sooner than small ones. It’s not hard to envision some of the giant ISPs fully automating the backoffice function to eliminate many customer service, accounting, and other office workers. Little companies are not going to easily duplicate this transition. Employees in smaller ISPs tend to wear many hats and usually don’t perform just one function. The cost for a small company to implement an AI solution might be a lot higher than the savings.
One consequence of improved efficiency for big ISPs might be that it will become easier to justify buying small ISPs and eliminating everybody except the field technicians.
Interestingly, there is one area where most of the predictions agree – that AI will not replace innovators and experts who see the big picture. Nobody believes that software is going to have any creative spark in the coming decades, and maybe never. But that raises an interesting question. How do we grow the next generation of experienced veterans in an industry where a lot of the functions are done by AI? All of the smartest people I know in the broadband industry have worn many different hats during their careers. It is the accumulated experience of working in many parts of the business that makes them an expert.
One thing is sure. ChatGPT and similar software is new, and we’re at the very beginning of the AI revolution. But if this new software meets only a fraction of the early claimed benefits, we’re going to see huge changes across the economy. Whatever is coming is going to be massively disruptive, and working in telecom or any other industry will never be the same.