Are Robots Coming to Steal Our Jobs?

What the emergence of AI and machine learning technology means for the economy and the world.

What we are talking about today, as put so succinctly by Bill Hurtz, are thing inventors that invent other thing inventors in their drive to invent things!

In other words: artificial intelligence and machine learning.

We are making rapid advancements in these two fields and, according to the movies, the new world we’re venturing into will end up one of two ways.

On the one hand, we could have a Wall-E situation where AI and machine learning lead to eminently helpful robots that tend to our needs while we get fat and generally enjoy life.

Or, we could have an Elysium-esque world where the masses fall into extreme poverty as they’re slowly displaced by machines while the rich and powerful benefit massively.

This question is hotly debated among scholars as well. Some people believe that this “digital industrialization”, while transformative, will be no more destructive than past technological revolutions. Others think that we’re facing the beginning of the end of modern society.

That’s a big difference of opinion and one that, given how much people care about their jobs and economic security, is critical when considering our shared future. While it’s impossible to know which side is right for sure, given the stakes, it’s crucial that you at least understand the different viewpoints so you can decide for yourself. Let’s get into it.

Argument 1: Everything Will be Just Fine!

Despite the semi-apocalyptic tone of this piece, there are a significant amount of people that believe that all of this talk about new technology stealing everyone’s jobs is overblown and alarmist. Their argument rests on two main points.

a) Technology Doesn’t Steal Jobs, it Creates Jobs (The Luddite Fallacy)!

This argument has been around for awhile and the main idea is that, due to the inherent nature of technological advancement, some people may lose their jobs but, due to the creation of new industries, the overall unemployment rate will remain about the same.

In fact, the name comes from textile workers who lived in England during the 18th century. They protested the introduction of new technology that they thought would take away their jobs. While the introduction of this technology did lead to short term unemployment, it also created new jobs in new sectors.

The basis for this argument, as explained in this Ted Talk by economist Marco Annunziata, is the idea that innovation is fundamentally about economic growth and jobs, and that new technology leads to new opportunity.

When applied to the real world, this is the idea that any jobs that technological innovation may take away will be replaced by new industries that the new technology will spark. While there may be a period of higher unemployment during which workers are trained for the new industry, the important point is that the jobs will continue to exist.

One great example of this line of thought can be found in this newsweek piece by Kevin Maney. This article describes how technological innovation influenced employment opportunities related to the gas pumping industry.

More specifically, it explains that, though the introduction of automated technology, many gas pumpers did in fact lose their jobs. However, this meant that gas station owners had more money to create mini-marts at the station, providing new employment opportunities. This also meant that consumers weren’t required to pay as much for their gas and so had more money to spend on other goods. This led to a boost in those industries and even more employment opportunities.

The cycle goes on like this forever. New technology may do away with some jobs but, in doing so, it sparks new industries that provide for employment opportunities that make up for what was lost.

b) Better Together

The idea behind this argument is fairly simple. Described by Maurice Conti in this Ted Talk, it acknowledges that machines are great at things like brute force calculations and analysis that will, more likely than not, mean that they will soon be able to complete certain tasks more efficiently than humans ever could.

However, the other half of this argument, and the important part, is that humans will still be better at carrying out the job as a whole. It relies on the fact that humans are much better as asking the questions than machines are. This means that our future will not be one in which machines take over our jobs, but rather, one in which they help us do our jobs more effectively.

At its crux, the argument is this. Through well-designed cooperation, humans and machines will be able to achieve much more than either machines or humans could ever hope to achieve alone. As a result, the only logical conclusion is a world in which we work together.

Argument 2: Robots are Rad

The other side of the debate is markedly more pessimistic about about the effect of the AI revolution on society for two main reasons. First of all, they see this revolution as inherently different from past technological revolutions. Secondly, they are more confident about the capabilities of machines and AI.

a) The Luddites were Right (or they are right this time)

While the previous argument relied on the idea that new technology always creates new industry and thus new jobs, those on this side believe that this wave of technological revolution is inherently different.

As described by Technologist Jeremy Howard in this Ted Talk, all previous tech revolutions were “S” shaped. That is to say, they were adopted slowly but, once instituted, led to a short period of dramatic change after which the change leveled out.

However, machine learning and AI is different because, quite simply, it won’t level out. These technologies, by definition, continually improve. There won’t be a time at which they’ll be “smart enough” but instead will continue to get better at what they do, continuously changing how we live and work.

b) Machines are Magic

Okay, not really. But this version of the argument believes that machines are infinitely more capable than humans. This is, in large part, due to the fact that machine learning and AI technologies advance at an exponential rate.

As a result, many people believe that, while humans may be better at certain jobs for now, this is a reality that won’t last for long. The “everything is fine” camp cites the ability of humans’ to question and think critically as proof of their longevity. The “everything is not fine” camp, on the other hand, believes that this cognitive advantage simply will not hold.

Rather, as described by Maurice Conti here, they believe that machine learning will eventually allow computers to make the jump from being “passive” to “generative” tools. That is to say, they won’t only serve at the behest and request of humans, but rather will become advanced enough to ask their own questions and make their own decisions. Computer scientists call this hypothetical future phenomenon the “singularity” a point beyond which machine learning and AI gain some form of consciousness and change the way we live. You can read more about that here.

What We’re Facing

The question at the very core of this debate is fairly simple. We just don’t know how advanced machine learning and AI will get, and how long it will take them to get there. This, in turn, will affect whether we can adapt our economies fast enough to maintain a normal level of unemployment.

However, we do know what the consequences might be if we’re wrong or fail to properly adapt. A study done by Oxford scholars Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne in conjunction with Citi that was released in 2016 states that 77% of jobs in China, 43% of jobs in the US, and an average of 57% of the jobs in OECD countries are at risk of being automated.

Another finding from that same study showed the extent to which certain professions could be totally automated.

Furthermore, Stephen Hawking believes that the economic effects of automation will decimate the middle class, worsen inequality, and possibly lead to political upheaval.

The fact is, I could give you an unending list of similar statistics and predictions. Things are going to change and they’re going to change massively. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

Without a doubt, advancements in AI and machine learning will lead to net benefits increased efficiency for the world economy at large and this will mean good things for many people but, if the numbers cited above are any indication, it could also turn our current world upside down. We need to think about how those benefits will be distributed in order to truly judge the results of the coming revolution.

One person leading the charge in this battle is Elon Musk, whose OpenAI project has been developed to make sure that AI developments don’t threaten the livelihood of humans that created them.

Here’s to hoping he figures it out.

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