Automation’s impact on jobs: what’s happened in just 6 weeks.

In January, I started a weekly newsletter on the impact automation (AI and robotics) is having on jobs. I did this mostly because I wanted to keep better track of what’s happening in this space, and I thought that a weekly publication deadline might help me do this.

I’m only six weeks in, and there have already been so many developments in the field that I have to be selective about what I include.

Writing about this stuff week on week, several trends have emerged that paint a picture of a world waking up to the huge changes automation is going to bring. Broadly, the trends are these:

  1. AI achieving new things
  2. Companies embracing automation
  3. Politicians starting to react (read: Universal Basic Income)
  4. Experts issuing warnings

Here are some of the ways these trends have unfolded so far in 2017.

1. AI achieving new things

Probably the biggest announcement of 2017 so far is that DeepMind have trained different AI systems to work together. In their experiments, separate AI agents collaborate when the going is good — but become aggressive when resources are scarce. This might hold big hints about the direction AI will go in the future.

The red dots are the two AI agents collaborating

At the same time, there have been lots of announcements about specific new tasks AI has mastered. AI hedge funds are now outperforming humans; AI is better than people at Poker; AI is as good as humans at recognising skin cancer; MIT researchers have trained AI to detect the tone of a conversation with 83% accuracy; there’s a hedge fund that’s run by AI; and Google’s AI can now figure out who’s in low-quality CCTV shots.

Finally, both Google and Microsoft have announced that their AI has learnt to write code, with Google’s even learning how to write its own machine learning software. Machines that build machines are on the horizon.

2. Companies embracing automation

We tend to think of automation replacing jobs as a concern of the future — but stories have already been popping up of companies replacing human workers with machines in 2017.

A Japanese firm replaced 34 of their workers with IBM’s Watson; a Chinese factory reported a 250% productivity increase after replacing 90% of their human workers with robots; Ford announced that they’re spending $1BN on self-driving cars; online retailer Ocado are trialling robotic arms that can pack fruit without bruising it; Rolls-Royce announced that they plan to release their first autonomous ships by 2020; and Georgia Tech is using AI as a teaching assistant.

It feels like this is a trend that’s only going to continue picking up pace.

3. Politicians starting to react (read: Universal Basic Income)

Another idea that seems to be picking up pace is Universal Basic Income, which is being discussed by increasing numbers of politicians as a solution to jobs disappearing as a result of automation. In 2017 so far, two French socialist Presidential candidates declared their support for it, MEPs said they think we should seriously consider it, and Canada became the latest country to announce a pilot.

At the same time, politicians have been thinking about the wider impact of automation on society: MEPs recently urged the EU Commission to draw up EU-wide rules on AI and robotics and follow their impact on the labour market closely.

4. Experts issuing warnings

More and more experts — in various fields — are imploring people to start thinking about the impact automation is going to have on society.

The year kicked off with McKinsey predicting that half of today’s work activities could be automated by 2055. Barack Obama, in some of his final acts as President, reiterated how important it is that US politicians start thinking about how automation will affect jobs (in his final interview) and warned that automation is playing a far greater role in job losses than globalisation (in his farewell address). Elon Musk said he thinks humans will have to merge with AI if they want to remain relevant. And the think tank Reform warned that the public sector is going to be just as affected by automation as the private sector.

Possibly the most interesting idea of 2017 so far is Bill Gates’ proposal that we replace income tax with a robot tax. My take on this is that, given that corporations will likely be the ones who own the AI and robotics systems doing all the work of the future, this isn’t very different from saying that corporation tax should be increased; but it’s an interesting thought, and has got a lot of people talking about these issues.

What else I’ve learned

There are a bunch of other interesting things related to the automation of work that have happened in 2017. Here’s a selection:

It’s been a fascinating six weeks, and it seems inevitable that these trends are only going to continue gathering pace as AI keeps improving, companies turn more and more to automation and increasing numbers of people join the conversation.

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