U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (Photographer: Olivier Douliery/Pool via Bloomberg)

Forecasting the robot apocalypse

By Brad Stone

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Artificial intelligence will take 6 percent of all U.S. jobs by 2021. It will claim 35 percent of all UK jobs by 2035! Unemployment could surpass 50 percent by 2045! As any follower of labor predictions knows, masses of desk attendants, cashiers, factory workers, delivery staff, taxi drivers, truckers — anyone who drives for a living — could be thrown out of work.

On Friday, there was another, far bolder prognostication: “It’s not even on our radar screen. … Fifty to 100 more years” away, said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. “I’m not worried at all,” he said when Axios’s Mike Allen asked about robots displacing humans at an event in Washington. “In fact, I’m optimistic.”

Conversations over the future of human labor at a time of rapidly improving artificial intelligence have created a cloud of amorphous anxiety. But Secretary Mnuchin’s comments struck many in the high-tech community as uninformed at best and naïve at worst.

“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

“Okay, so Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is spectacularly ill-informed. Cringeworthy,” tweeted Alec Ross, a former adviser to the U.S. State Department and author of the 2016 book The Industries of the Future. “Last year Foxconn fired 60,000 employees in one day (one day!!!!) and replaced them with robots.”

There’s a statement, attributed to the late futurist Roy Amara, which goes, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

Mnuchin managed to achieve a rare feat: He almost certainly underestimated the impact of AI in both the short term and the long term.

Intelligent software has been relentlessly changing the nature of work for at least the past few decades, decimating old jobs while creating new ones. Microsoft’s productivity apps sent many secretaries, typesetters and tax accountants the way of the dodo, as former hedge-fund manager Andy Kessler pointed out in the Wall Street Journal on Sunday. Bank ATMs, self-checkout lanes at stores and E-ZPass tollbooths have made companies and governments more efficient, and reduced their need for human labor.

Automation anxiety has been with us for more than a century.

And the economic impact has largely been positive. For most of that time, job growth has outpaced population growth despite the job-crushing forward march of technology.

Automation anxiety has been with us for more than a century. It has only recently centered around AI, and the possibility that software and robots will become intelligent enough to replace large swaths of the workforce.

Yet, trying to predict technology cycles and their timing is a fool’s errand. Before 2007, few would have guessed the transformative power of the smartphone, which decimated some jobs (at firms that made standalone GPS devices, for example) but minted an entirely new industry of app developers.

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical that AI will eliminate millions of jobs overnight. On Friday, Uber suspended its self-driving car program after one of its autonomous cars was involved in a high-impact crash in Tempe, Arizona. (In this case, Tempe police told my colleague Mark Bergen that a human driver was at fault.) In Seattle, Amazon is having problems working out the kinks of its cashier-less Amazon Go market, according to Bloomberg’s Spencer Soper and Olivia Zaleski.

But these are almost certainly temporary setbacks on the road to a more automated future. Technology tends to humble anyone making predictions with certainty. I’m not sure I buy the pessimism around massive job losses from AI over the next 30 years. The economy, like an immune system, tends to adapt and find new ways to put people to work. The best thing we can do is get ready for it and eye the future with a plenty of humility.

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