The Value of Human Capital in the Era of AI and Machine Learning
J van Zyl (PhD), March 2023
The development of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) has the potential to transform many industries and aspects of our lives. From self-driving cars to medical diagnosis, the capabilities of machines are expanding rapidly. As these technologies continue to advance, questions arise about the value of human capital in the new economy. Human capital refers to the knowledge, skills, and abilities that individuals possess, and it has long been recognized as a key driver of economic growth and prosperity.
The era of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) has indeed led to a significant transformation in the way businesses operate. The integration of these technologies has enabled organizations to automate various processes, reduce costs, and improve efficiencies. However, while AI and ML are transforming the workplace, there is an ongoing debate about the impact of these technologies on human capital. Some experts argue that AI and ML will replace human workers, while others contend that they will augment their capabilities. In this paper, we explore the concept of human capital in the era of AI and ML, drawing on the existing literature to examine the value of human workers in a world where machines are increasingly capable of performing complex tasks.
The Value of Human Capital
Human capital refers to the knowledge, skills, and abilities possessed by individuals that contribute to their productivity and ability to generate economic value. While AI and ML can automate certain tasks, they are unable to replicate the creativity, empathy, and critical thinking skills that are unique to humans. As such, human capital remains a crucial component of organizational success.
One study by the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI, 2017) estimated that while AI and ML will displace some jobs, they will also create new ones, leading to a net increase in employment. The report also found that the most significant gains would come from the complementary relationship between human workers and AI and ML systems. For example, AI and ML could be used to automate routine tasks, allowing human workers to focus on higher-value activities that require creativity, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence.
Another study by the World Economic Forum (WEF, 2020) found that while AI and ML would lead to a decline in some job categories, they would also create new ones. The report predicted that emerging job categories such as data analysts, AI and ML specialists, and digital marketing professionals would experience significant growth in the coming years. These jobs require specialized knowledge and skills, highlighting the value of human capital in the era of AI and ML.
Furthermore, the use of AI and ML in the workplace has highlighted the importance of soft skills such as communication, collaboration, and adaptability. As AI and ML continue to automate routine tasks, human workers will need to focus on activities that require a human touch. For example, customer service representatives will need to possess excellent communication skills to provide personalized support to customers.
The Complementarity of Human and Machine Capital
A growing body of research suggests that rather than displacing human workers, machines and AI can be complementary to human labour. Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2014) argue that advances in technology increase the value of human capital by making it more productive. As machines take over routine tasks, human workers are freed up to focus on more complex and creative tasks that require human judgment and decision-making. For example, AI may be able to analyze data and identify patterns, but it still requires human input to interpret the results and make decisions based on them. Similarly, while machines may be able to perform routine tasks like data entry or transcription, humans are still needed to provide context and make sense of the information.
The Importance of Soft Skills
As machines become more capable of performing technical tasks, the value of soft skills such as communication, collaboration, and problem-solving increases. A study by the World Economic Forum (2020) found that the top skills needed in the workplace in 2022 are expected to include critical thinking, creativity, and people management, all of which are difficult to automate. These skills are closely tied to human capital and are likely to become even more important as machines take on routine tasks.
The Need for Continuous Learning
The rapid pace of technological change means that workers must be able to adapt and learn new skills throughout their careers. This requires a commitment to lifelong learning and a willingness to invest in human capital. The OECD (2019) highlights the importance of upskilling and reskilling workers to keep pace with technological change. This may involve retraining workers for new roles or providing opportunities for ongoing education and development. The value of human capital in the new economy depends in part on the ability of workers to keep pace with technological change and acquire the skills needed to remain relevant.
In conclusion, while AI and ML will undoubtedly transform the workplace, they will not replace human workers entirely. The complementary relationship between human workers and AI and ML systems highlights the value of human capital in the era of AI and ML. As AI and ML automate routine tasks, human workers will need to focus on activities that require creativity, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence. The emergence of new job categories and the importance of soft skills highlight the ongoing need for human workers in the workplace. Therefore, organizations should continue to invest in the development of human capital to remain competitive in the era of AI and ML.
Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (2014). The second machine age: Work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies. W W Norton & Co.
Manyika, J., Chui, M., Miremadi, M., Bughin, J., George, K., Willmott, P., & Dewhurst, M. (2017).
MGI, (2017). A future that works: Automation, employment, and productivity. McKinsey Global Institute.
OECD, 2019. Human Capital: How what you know shapes your life. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264029095-en [Accessed on 4 March 2023]
World Economic Forum. (2020). The future of jobs report 2020. Geneva: World Economic Forum.