Bloody AI, coming over here and taking our jobs!

We are en route to a dystopian, jobless future where super advanced technology will make us humans obsolete. Or, as summed up in one word by WIRED, we’re heading for a Robopocalypse.

At least, that’s what we’re led to believe, if the recent hype around robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) is anything to go by.

You can call this The Great Tech Panic and, to be fair, it’s hardly surprising. Over the last few years, we’ve seen crazy progress in technology, and particularly AI, which is now capable of defeating Go masters, out-bluffing champions in Texas Hold’em, and safely driving a car. No biggie then. Couple this with a tonne of studies predicting mass job losses and you’ve got yourself a pretty bleak picture. Take the Bank of England, for example, which published a report in 2015 predicting the loss of 15 million UK jobs to robots. Ouch.

Bank of England data

Oh and not to mention the fact that, last summer, Facebook discovered that its artificial intelligence engine had created its own unique language that humans couldn’t understand. Wait, WHAT?! If AI can create its own language then surely it’s only a matter of time before it turns against us and begins the end of humankind…right?

Well, actually, no — the idea of technology replacing human jobs isn’t anything new, nor is our everlasting fear around job security. Humans have been displaced by machines over and over in the past, even since the 18th century, when machinery was introduced into the textile industry. This famously resulted in an armies of livid handicraftsmen, known as ‘Luddites’, attacking factories across Nottingham, Yorkshire and Lanchasire fearing that the years spent learning their craft would suddenly become irrelevant at the hands of a machine. “Not on our watch!” they cried, as they lobbed their burning torches at their perceived enemy. But, in reality, those changes didn’t lead to eternal joblessness and neither will the changes we’re seeing today.

I’m not saying that AI won’t have an important impact on us and the way we work. Nor am I saying that all jobs are safe because they’re not. The highest risk is with jobs that are manual, repetitive or, frankly, a tad boring because they can be easily automated. Call Centre Agents, Bank Clerks and even Drivers have all been victims of workplace automation for some time now. But in future, jobs previously believed to be too complex for automation, like City Bankers, Lawyers and Accountants, will fall into this category as a result of AI, and specifically Intelligent Process Automation.

Sure it sounds scary, but it shouldn’t be. In practice, what actually happens is that new technology leads to structural changes in the economy. In other words, we adapt. New jobs are created which complement technological changes and increase productivity. So instead of net job losses, there’s a shift in the kinds of jobs available. That’s why jobs previously sidelined for the super geeky — Software Engineers, Data Scientists and Robot Architects — are now the sexiest jobs of the 21st century. In fact, Developers are now in such high demand, that rumour has it, they are the next big blue-collar worker. Equally, as we move towards a future where human emotions like empathy and compassion are highly sought skills, we will see human-centred jobs rapidly grow in importance — Designers, Content Producers, Researchers, Educators, Psychiatrists, Nurses and many more healthcare professionals. Even the role of your friendly, local barista could be elevated in esteem, as companies depend much more heavily on the human touch of their front-facing staff.

The thing is, a changing economic landscape and evolving job market might be great in the long term, but this is no comfort to those affected. Will all of this change actually feel like an improvement anytime soon? Well, in theory, yes! Let’s just take a look at working hours. They’ve been increasing since the 1980’s and nowadays it’s common to work anywhere between 40 and 60+ hours a week. Ugh, it makes me tired just thinking about it! And there’s no hiding from the fact that this is having a negative toll on our mental and physical health — whether we’re complaining that we’re stressed, sleep deprived or we don’t have enough time to spend with our loved ones, a lot of it can be attributed to our working patterns. But, this wasn’t the way we were meant to live.

In the 1930’s, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by now, we’d have 15 hour work weeks as a direct result of technology advancements and workplace automation. According to ol’ John, society’s problems wouldn’t be stress and uncertainty, but about too much leisure time. Imagine that!

Admittedly, a 15 hour work week seems a little extra, but there’s something in this. Having more time for leisure doesn’t mean sitting in front of the TV binge-watching ‘Peaky Blinders’ (although this is, of course, a perfectly acceptable past time). It’s about being able to spend more time on things that really matter to us, whether it’s art, sports, travelling, or socialising with friends and family. And funnily enough, plenty of studies suggest that working less will make us more productive too. This is a pretty big deal for us considering that UK productivity and working hours have long compared poorly to other countries who work less, yet still achieve more. So, with AI and similar technologies continuing to advance at alarming rates, we could start to benefit from more flexible and favourable working patterns.

That all sounds great but I can almost hear you saying, “But wait a minute Nat, how are we gonna afford all this if we’re working less?” Well, there’s a growing collection of people, which includes the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, who believe that Universal Basic Income (UBI) is one of the answers to these technology-driven workplace changes. For those of you that haven’t heard of it, UBI is a scheme whereby a government pays all of its citizens, employed or not, a flat monthly sum to cover basic needs. In other words, it’s indiscriminate, free money. Fans of UBI argue that, in a future where jobs may be scarce and we have more time on our hands, we’ll all need a financial cushion. At the same time, UBI can free people from jobs they hate, to do the things they’ve always dreamed of without the associated financial stress — like focusing on their art, starting a business or going back to school.

It might sound like a pipe dream but that’s not the case for 2000 Finns who were randomly selected to take part in an experiment launched by the Finnish government last year. In this case, the problem the Finnish government are trying to tackle isn’t automation, rather it’s unemployment. Nonetheless, it’s encouraged a lot of the recent excitement around the idea, with many watching closely to see what we learn and how it can be applied to the issue of technology-driven job losses.

Still, this isn’t exactly reassuring if you do find yourself out of work at the hands of a younger, robotic model. The truth is that in future, more and more of us will need to reevaluate our skills and develop new ones — and governments will need to act proactively in order to prepare and help us do this.

But the responsibility doesn’t only lie with those who become displaced. Designers and Technologists have an important responsibility to consider the ethical and social impact of their work. On the one hand, the opportunities presented by new technologies such as AI and machine learning are incredible, with the possibility of helping humanity solve some of its toughest challenges. Equally, these technologies can be disruptive, with uneven and potentially negative implications for different groups. This is exactly why initiatives like the DeepMind Ethics & Society have been created — to ensure safety and accountability, while promoting the use of these technologies for social good. I mean, that should be the sole purpose of technical advancements right? To improve the lives and experiences of those that use it.


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