AI Has The Power To Create New Work Opportunities
As AI scales, it will become cheaper and faster to have some types of work done by robots instead of humans. One benefit is that humans will be able to focus on higher-level work that robots may not be able to do — for example, work that requires more thinking, decision-making, or emotional intelligence. However, a common and natural concern goes hand-in-hand with this: a brewing fear that “increasing robot work” inherently means “decreasing human work” (ie, jobs).
My view is much more optimistic. I believe automation is a necessity in the near term to maintain productivity. In the long run, we may even improve current lifestyles and collectively work better — fewer hours, more safely, more healthily — with the help of AI.
An assumption behind our fear of artificial intelligence is that the number and kinds of jobs available to humans stays the same, and robots take jobs away from humans. While scary, this assumption overlooks two critical points. First, robots are often filling the jobs that not many—or simply not enough—Americans want to do in the near term. Second, as technology advances the pie will increase in size, meaning we actually have the ability to generate more productivity and new types of jobs.
Filling in the empty spots
A very near-term benefit of AI is to help reduce the labor shortage in labor-heavy industries such as manufacturing and agriculture. In these industries, there’s actually too much work that not enough people are willing to do.
Agriculture, for example, is the least digitalized industry and saw a 1% YOY decline in productivity from 2005–2014, lower than every other industry outside of construction and retail trade. Many farmers in California are so in need of technology that they are willing to try out and sign a Letter-of-Intent (LOI) with robotics companies in a matter of months. For perspective, a typical enterprise sales cycle is often 12–18 months.
Similarly, the biggest bottleneck for many factory owners is labor shortage. Thanks to Heartland VC I interviewed several manufacturing owners in Indiana, and across the board, the major pain point they identified was simply finding hourly workers, period. In some cases, the need for new workers is so great that they hire without conducting background checks. This is the single most pressing issue on many of the factory owners’ minds.
In other cases, some jobs are so dangerous for humans that fatality is a key concern. Cell phone tower and bridge inspection, for example, requires humans to climb to the top of constructions to conduct work. With the improvement of accuracy and stability, drone companies now can fly overhead on behalf of humans to take pictures of cell phone towers or bridges, letting humans workers inspect from a far safer vantage point: the ground below.
Increasing the pie: Introducing new roles
Take a look at some of the new jobs that have popped up in recent years; for example, a social media manager. This role didn’t exist before developments like Facebook and Twitter. Similarly, a robot coordinator might be a future role that doesn’t exist today.
Imagine your current job requires you to assemble boxes on your own. Every day you assemble 200 boxes in 10 hours. What if instead you could control 10 machines to assemble the boxes? Your job changes from box assembler to robot controller. Not only do you have a cool new job title, but you may only need to provide supervision to make sure things are running properly. In theory, you could do this while learning a language or doing your weekly meal planning, and still hit if not exceed your same quota.
Flexible “human in the loop” jobs
I’ve written about my belief in opening up the benefits of “assistants” beyond just the executive suite, but the concept of AI assistants (along with countless other AI solutions) introduces another type of job: “human in the loop” work.
AI assistants today are not good enough to outright replace human assistants, especially when situations get complex or require situational knowledge and context. However, these systems need to leverage human work in new ways: employing people to do final checking and validation on machine learning assumptions. Companies developing AI assistants and other types of ML-driven algorithms are actually increasing employment for those looking for flexible and remote work and allowing those hires to take on pieces or chunks of hours at a time.
Rather than jumping to extreme visions — scenarios which would require iterations upon iterations of our own work to get there — I’m intrigued by the realistic and tangible benefits of having robots take on work humans often don’t want to do, allowing humans to improve, change, or broaden our own lifestyle. Of course, in order for everybody to benefit from technological advancement and its impact on increased efficiency, we must democratize AI lest the gap between rich and poor widen massively. But when it comes to the burgeoning AI space, I’m inspired by the low-cost, high-efficiency possibilities for AI to help humans operate more safely or spend more time with their families. Not everything can be done by robots, today or in the near future — nor should it.
This article by BSV founder Lan Xuezhao was first published on Forbes; you can find the original here.