Thursday, 7 August 2014

Robotics, AI and the worldwide job cull

New technologies are going to destroy jobs, and there’s no promise they will create enough new ones to fill the gap

Do you think a computer could do your job? It’s a question that people have been asking for at least 25 years, and it’s becoming more intense with the advance of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). And the uncomfortable truth is that the answer for a growing number is ‘yes’.

Technology has been knocking people out of work for a couple of centuries, and as it develops ever more quickly the trend is going to continue. So far it’s been alleviated in industrial economies by the creation of new jobs, but the big question is whether this can continue as robotics and AI automates more tasks previously dependent on the human brain.

A new report from Pew Research, AI, Robotics and the Future of Jobs, indicates that there isn’t a consensus. A survey of almost 1,900 experts produced close to an even split between the optimists and pessimists, with 52% expecting that technology will create as many jobs as it displaces by 2025 and 48% forecasting that it won’t do so. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the latter group are worried about big increases in income inequality, mass unemployment and breakdowns in social order.

It’s hard to feel positive about blue collar jobs, and the more routine white collar occupations. Robotics are extending machines’ capacity for manual tasks, and AI promises (or threatens, depending on where you stand) to do the same for a lot of jobs that involve the routine processing of information. Also, the ability of cognitive systems to process vast quantities of data at high speed is impinging on areas, such as healthcare diagnoses and financial trading, currently regarded as the province of professionals (a subject I covered in a white paper for the UK’s Chartered Institute for IT).

I’m not going to predict whether the new technology will create enough jobs to replace those it knocks out. I lean towards the pessimists’ view, but that’s the result of a mild scepticism rather than any strong evidence. But the Pew Research report has prompted a couple of thoughts about the future of technology and job creation.

One is that developed economies rely increasingly on jobs that could be described as non-essential. You can apply it to big chunks of the media, marketing, retail, manufacturing consumer goods that are seldom used – providing services that the recipients like, but could easily do without. I suspect that these jobs are close to their limit; society can’t consume any more, however inventive the ad men become at creating demand. There will be fewer new ones to fill the gap as more of the essential jobs become the province of robotics and AI.

The other is to do with how far AI will be allowed to penetrate the professions or top end management roles. There is a realistic argument that an educated human judgement is necessary for many decisions, especially when there’s an ethical element involved. Cognitive computing can be used for high level decision support, but the ultimate responsibility should remain with a human. Those humans form elites, and elites tend to be very good at protecting their own interests.

They’ll want rigid boundaries in place to keep themselves in those top level roles, and a culture that emphasises the primacy of the human mind in their fields. They may be right, they may be wrong, but there are going to be a lot of roles for which the limits are not clear, and professions that will become battlefields.
Of course there’s another possibility: that as technology takes over more jobs those that remain are spread more evenly, so we’ve all got more leisure time. But that was predicted fifty years ago, it hasn’t worked out that way since and, given the prevailing dynamics, it’s not likely to happen in the foreseeable future.

The advance of robotics and AI is inevitable, and in the long term it could well do more good than harm; but in the next two, three, four decades the disruption they cause won’t be a pretty thing to watch.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See

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