The AI Revolution: Boom or Bust?
When Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator hit theaters in 1984, audiences around the world were shocked and scared of the prospect of robots one day rising up and killing all humans.
34 years later, while robots have yet to kill all humans, they have begun to kill jobs in developed countries across the globe. The doomsday predictions set forth by Terminator have been replaced by doomsday predictions for the economic role humans will play in our future.
It is no surprise that according to a new survey conducted by the Brookings Institute, 38% of the people surveyed think that AI will reduce jobs as compared to the 13% who thought AI would create more jobs.
Yet, perhaps we are having the wrong conversation.
In every era, before what will be an inevitable economic and societal shift, people fear the impacts that automation may bring. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, loom weavers certainly foresaw the potential destruction of their jobs. Hunter-gatherers undoubtedly experienced a displacement in their jobs when humans decided to shift towards settled civilizations and farming roles.
While many of these fears manifested in the short term, civilizations only saw increased prosperity in the long term.
There is no reason to believe that the AI Revolution will be any different. Looking into the future from the present day, it is very hard to grasp the types of new jobs that may be created. But if we revisit our hunter-gatherer ancestors, how exactly would they react to the concept of a light bulb, steam engine, or the Internet? As technology evolves, so does the very nature of our reality. Each new invention creates a chain of new jobs, more innovations, and more inventions ahead of it.
Automation is nothing new. According to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute, we’ve already destroyed 95% of the jobs multiple times in history. AI is just another revolution in the cycle.
What unique benefits will this revolution bring?
In developed countries, along with the productivity booms in the economies, people will be able to work less and play more.
While this is difficult to conceptualize, we see this effect all around us. Soccer came about thanks to increased leisure from the Industrial Revolution in Britain. We can thank automation for allowing us to golf and play video games.
This is because new technology does not simply destroy job industries, it often helps these industries to evolve. Even consider Aiko: decreasing the amount of time people spend writing emails and scheduling meetings may sound trivial in comparison to the numerous hours within a workday, but it is the crux of such productivity booms we have seen throughout history.
A more far reaching impact may be in medicine.
The sheer volume of medical knowledge is far too much for any one doctor to keep up with. As such, AI is being created to help doctors follow the latest medical practices.
Hui Lei, one of my friends at IBM and the Director and Chief Technology Officer of IBM Watson Health Cloud, explained to me how this technology is already implemented. When one of his colleagues was diagnosed with cancer, the patient flew around the country to the best doctors in the most distinguished institutions, but ultimately still trusted the program suggested by Watson. He is now cancer free.
As such technologies continue to evolve, there will be no way a human can create as consistent results on the same scale as something like Watson can. This is incredibly important to saving lives — a majority of medical deaths and complications happen from taking a suboptimal treatment approach.
Just this year, the FDA in the United States, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in Europe, and the Ministries of Health in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa approved AI software that can diagnose both diabetic and non-diabetic retinopathy, a common eye disease that without proper treatment causes blindness.
What is particularly noteworthy about this is that eye specialists commonly diagnose the incorrect eye condition 40% of the time. This type of AI software for someone is the difference between experiencing colours and darkness.
What will our future look like?
Right now, we are still in the very beginning of the sigmoid curve; AI operates in an exponential expansion where we will see rapid progress and hopefully some wonderful advances. This means that it is far too early to predict our future.
However, we should remain optimistic.
In the end of the Terminator movie, the Terminator loses. Skynet is destroyed by the human led resistance. The robot assassin is killed by the strength and perseverance of two humans.
Even if we see some job loss right now, when we come through the other side of the tunnel, we will see new industries that we could have never even dreamed of. This is the power of human innovation and ingenuity.
Don’t fear it.