The Rise of the Machines

Technology, as a replacement for labour, used to be something we could joke about. In 1968, Woody Allen joked that his father was made, “technologically unemployed by a tiny gadget this big that does everything he could, just does it much better. Depressing thing is, my mother ran out and bought one”.

Now, however, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is getting smarter and more able.

In fact, the world of AI is advancing in giant leaps, and we can see this at the University of Edinburgh’s Informatics Department, Europe’s largest and Britain’s top for research. It is a goldmine of AI equipment. Take for example Baxter (Rethink Robots). Baxter is a motion transfer robot that can imitate human motions. The department is also home to the Scottish national robot football team, which were programmed to compete in the robot world cup in Brazil last summer. Next, the Informatics team seek to buy the six-foot-two Valkyrie Humanoid Robot, developed by NASA to provide rescue functions in disaster zones with high levels of mobility and skill.

The robots are getting smarter and smarter and in light of these advances, AI is predicted to bear a significant impact on the future: how we behave, how we play, and most importantly, how we work. Technology is becoming more valuable at the expense of human labour. It is therefore important to consider what AI advances mean for the future job market.

David Baker recently aired a show called When Robots Steal Your Jobs on BBC Radio 4 in which he discussed the developing threat of AI on white collar jobs, like lawyers and doctors, where analytical and precise information can be generated by robots much faster than by humans.

There are worries all over the world that AI will displace more jobs than it creates. Not so long ago, the world-renowned theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Professor Stephen Hawking, warned the world that AI would be the greatest threat to mankind. This warning came in the midst of the development of Hawking’s new software to allow him to speak, despite suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS.

Professor Hawking is anxious about sentient machines because, in his view, such machines inevitably “would take off on [their] own, and re-design [themselves] at an ever increasing rate”. Hawking goes on to argue that: “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete.”

Hawking does not stand alone in this opinion. Elon Musk, CEO of rocket-developer Space X and Tesla Motors, argued that there are short term and long term consequences of AI. Immediately, we should be concerned that intelligent machines are capable of performing jobs currently done by human beings, destroying millions of jobs. Look as far as your nearest supermarket, and note that the cashier’s skillset has been replaced by a touchscreen. Consider the simplicity of the self-serve checkout, now imagine what more intelligent robots will be able to do. In the longer term, Musk warns us that AI is “our biggest existential threat”.

Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, is worried that it will be difficult to come up with an algorithmic moral code to contain ever-developing software.

However, PEW Research Centre asked experts about the economic impact of AI by 2025 and a mixed picture emerged, showing some hope for the future job market. While 48 percent of experts predict intelligent machines to permeate both blue and white collar jobs, 52 per cent are more optimistic about the future job market. They expect AI not to displace more jobs than it creates, and their argument runs as follows: while some jobs currently performed by humans will certainly be taken over by robots, a boom in new jobs should be expected, fitting in the creative trajectory set in motion since the Industrial Revolution. We humans, they argue, will find new ways of earning ‘our bread’, creating new industries, and pushing mankind on.

One of these experts is a certain J.P. Rangaswami, chief scientist for Salesforce.com. Rangaswami argues that throughout history technology has been a job creator – not a destroyer. The effect of AI on the job market will vary from nation to nation, based on investments in education, technology, and related infrastructure. While robots will be taking over some jobs as “poor labour substitutes”, Rangaswami predicts a growth in creative and curating activities by humans, as demand for their services grows quickly as social barriers to enter these fields fall.

Another expert, Vint Cerf, is also optimistic. Using his authority as vice president of Google, Cerf denounces hysterical claims, arguing: “Historically, technology has created more jobs than it destroys and there is no reason to think otherwise in this case.” After all, as Cerf says: “Someone has to make and service all these advanced devices.” Microsoft’s principal researcher, Jonathan Grudin, adds: “More jobs seem likely to be created… There is no shortage of things that need to be done and that will not change.” Perhaps the most optimistic expert is Michael Kende, Chief Economist for the non-profit organisation the Internet Society. “Every wave of automation and computerisation has increased productivity without depressing employment”, Kende argues. New waves of AI should therefore increase our personal or professional productivity, but not necessarily directly remove a job, for instance a self-driving car will not remove the chauffeur. Furthermore, Kende makes the case that, “while robots may displace some manual jobs, the impact should not be different than previous waves of automation in factories and elsewhere”.

PEW’s research goes further into expectations for the future job market in an AI-oriented world. On the one hand, experts from both camps agree that we should be concerned about our social structures, most importantly our schools and universities, which are not preparing people for jobs in the future job market. At present, coding, which will undeniably become the most important language in the world, lacks presence and importance in schools. Under this prediction, education reform regarding IT skills is long overdue. On the other hand, AI experts have also argued that the inevitable changes brought about by robots will create opportunities for people to “reassess our society’s relation to employment itself”, which can be translated into more leisure time, self-improvement, or a returning focus on artisanal modes of production.

The chief economist for Google, Hal Varian, stresses increased leisure time in an AI-oriented world. How unhappy are you that your dishwasher washes your dishes, or that your hoover replaces cleaning by hand? So far we have been rather welcoming towards “job displacement” in this kind of work. Varian goes further to state: “The work week has fallen from 70 hours a week to about 37 hours now, and I expect that it will continue to fall. This is a good thing. Everyone wants more jobs and less work.” More advanced AI will decrease workloads, a process which has been happening since the start of technology booms about 300 years ago. So no need to worry, Hal Varian says.

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