AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs

By Robert Hickson 12/08/2014


The respectable research group Pew Research has, as part of its “Future of the Internet Project”, just released a report on how robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) may affect the future of jobs.

AI is already starting to write well, and the founders of Google think there is a lot more to come. Others are less optimistic that we’ll get super smart AI any time soon, while Elon Musk thinks we should be “super careful” with AI so we don’t end up getting wiped out or enslaved.

Pew Research asked the question:

To what degree will AI and robotics be parts of the ordinary landscape of the general population by 2025? Describe which parts of life will change the most as these tools advance and which parts of life will remain relatively unchanged.

They canvassed nearly 12,000 “experts and members of the interested public”  and got responses from 1,896 . They recognise that this is a self-selected response pool and so the results aren’t likely to be representative.

The “experts” label is somewhat misleading since many aren’t involved in developing robots or AI nor historians of technology or employment. Its better to describe them as workers, analysts and commentators on technologies (largely ICT).

Interestingly, Pew got nearly an even split on whether robots and AI will displace more jobs than they create in 2025.

They characterised the key points from those who believe that there will be plenty of jobs for us carbon units as:

Argument #1: Throughout history, technology has been a job creator—not a job destroyer

Argument #2: Advances in technology create new jobs and industries even as they displace some of the older ones

Argument #3: There are certain jobs that only humans have the capacity to do

Argument #4: The technology will not advance enough in the next decade to substantially impact the job market

Argument #5: Our social, legal, and regulatory structures will minimize the impact on employment

What’s not discussed in much detail is the nature of the “human” jobs that are created. Will they be interesting, fulfilling and reasonably well paid? Or will a more automated society create so much wealth that many won’t need to work?

Those who had a less optimistic view of the future thought that the situation with AI and robots is quite different from previous technological changes, particularly because of the speed of change, and the number of industries affected. They made two main points:

Argument #1: Displacement of workers from automation is already happening—and about to get much worse

Argument #2: The consequences for income inequality will be profound

 

Pew noted that both groups agreed that  “The educational system is doing a poor job of preparing the next generation of workers” and that the concept of “work” may change significantly in the coming decade.

Many also agreed that  “Technology is not destiny … we control the future we will inhabit” Thats a sentiment that’s probably been expressed through every industrial revolution, but doesn’t stop many who lose their jobs or craft from being badly affected.

 

The report ends by noting some hopeful outcomes from greater automation, though they are vague:

Possibility #1: We will experience less drudgery and more leisure time (we’ve heard that one before)

Possibility #2: It will free us from the industrial age notion of what a “job” is (we’ve heard that one before too)

Possibility #3: We will see a return to uniquely “human” forms of production – by this they mean hand-made, artisanal, small scale production (though would 3-D printing be classed as “hand-made”?)

So, no one really knows how its going to play out. Except a lot of change is coming and we can’t rely on what’s gone before as being a good guide.