As AI enthusiasts, it is easy for us to get excited over new AI-powered technologies like Tesla Autopilot, Google Duplex and Amazon Go. And we should be! After all, these are some of the most innovative and advanced achievements of the human intellect. They enable a future where people can spend less time on routine work that we require to do and spend more time doing things that we want to do.
Imagine being able to catch a nap or watch your favorite episodes of The Office during your hour-long commute from work, all within the convenience of your own car. Imagine being able to walk into a grocery store, grab what you want and walk out within seconds, without having to wait in long lines at the cashier counter. Imagine getting your customer support queries solved within minutes without having to wait an hour for a representative to be available. This sounds like a future we should strive towards building, and AI will enable us to get there very, very soon.
This phase of AI-led Automation is what the experts are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
However, there is a downside to all of this. And unfortunately, we do not talk about it often. It will become very easy to automate millions of jobs worldwide in an incredibly short space of time. Many more jobs will disappear than will be created, at least in a short period of the foreseeable future. This phase of AI-led Automation is what the experts are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
How bad can AI-led Automation impact our workforce?
According to multiple studies conducted by McKinsey, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Skynet Today, AI is estimated to displace about 1/3rd of the current jobs worldwide just in the next 10 years. This number is expected to be up to 40% in the United States and almost 50% in Japan.
Looking at the spectrum of various jobs that humans do today, it is clear how far-reaching the effects of automation will be. According to the renowned Computer Scientist Kai-Fu Lee, jobs that are routine and repetitive in nature will be amongst the first ones to disappear. The following graphic from his Ted talk presentation provides a powerful sense of what jobs we can expect to be automated away in the immediate future.
But widescale automation has happened before as well. What’s different this time?
A fair counter-argument to the scare of future joblessness is that eventually, technology always creates more jobs than it destroys. Although this is absolutely true, there are some important points to note here. While previous technological revolutions did transition the job market, it was by no means what you could call a smooth transition. The Luddite Movement was a rebellion in the late 19th century where workers who lost their jobs opposed the use of automated machinery in the Textile industry. The rebellion later had to be suppressed using violence and military force.
While previous technological revolutions did transition the job market, it was by no means what you could call a smooth transition.
There is little reason to believe there will be no protests or unrest from the displaced workers who are not immediately able to find work. So, simply letting things play out as they are going to may lead to widespread civil anxiety and unrest which we should try to prevent as far as possible.
Why the impact of AI revolution could be more widespread…
This time the transition into the new job market could be even more difficult due to the nature of this technology. At the heart of most AI applications we see today is an algorithm known as Deep Neural Network. It is designed to mimic the human brain and just like us, has the capability of learning and mastering different tasks when provided with enough training examples. It is also capable of exceeding human performance in many tasks.
At the heart of most AI applications we see today is an algorithm known as Deep Neural Network.
This means Neural Networks have the capability of being rapidly applied to new problems across multiple industries that are seemingly completely different. Take a look at the graphic below to see how the same algorithm can be used to solve problems in various industries like Transportation, Retail, Tele-Services, etc.
Moreover, as Deep Neural Networks are software, they are easier for businesses to implement and adopt especially when compared to earlier technologies like mechanical robots which could take many years to set up. This means the jobs will be destroyed at a much faster pace this time around, and the creation of new jobs won’t nearly be enough to make up for it.
This means the jobs will be destroyed at a much faster pace this time around, and the creation of new jobs won’t nearly be enough to make up for it.
Despite all of these problems that will be created due to advancements in AI, I still believe overall AI will bring about more positive changes than negative. This is because it is promising to make our roads safer, provide more accurate diagnosis of diseases, make the cost of goods and services cheaper and simply increase the convenience of our day-to-day lives. So, we cannot, and should not stop the progress of AI. But, we also cannot let the situation develop as it is projected to so far. Then, what do we do?
Universal Basic Income
One of the proposed solutions to help ease the blow of automation to the displaced workers is to reform the current version of the Capitalist market. While robots will take over more and more routine and repetitive jobs, there will be fewer and fewer meaningful jobs that humans will be able to do. This is where the concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) comes into the picture, which is an idea that is gaining more and more popularity.
Universal Basic Income will provide a cushion to those who lose their jobs to AI and will allow them a chance to retrain themselves for the newly evolved market.
It involves the government providing a fixed minimum income to everyone that gets deposited into people’s bank accounts every month, no-strings-attached. While this money will be sufficient to spend on basic necessities of life like food and shelter, the amount won’t be so high that it would make people stop working. They will still need to find work in order to enjoy any luxury goods and services. This minimum income will provide a cushion to those who lose their jobs to AI and will allow them a chance to retrain themselves for the newly evolved market.
“There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better. What to do about mass-unemployment? I think we’ll end up doing universal basic income. I don’t think we’re going to have a choice. It’s going to be necessary.”
Quote by Elon Musk, 2018
Can UBI become a reality?
Andrew Yang, a Democratic candidate running in the 2020 US presidential elections, is basing his campaign on the idea of UBI. He is offering all adult American citizens a payment of $1000 every month starting 2021 in order for them to take care of their basic needs and give them a chance to retrain and adapt to the new job market. This money will be funded by a Value Added Tax as described earlier in the article.
“Putting money into people’s hands and keeping it there would be a perpetual boost and support to job growth and the economy.”
Quote by Andrew Yang, 2018
While an in-depth analysis of pros and cons of Yang’s version of UBI is out of the scope of this article, I would encourage dear readers to read up on his proposal in more detail at his campaign website. It is a powerful idea with the capability of redefining the fundamental meaning of work and income.
Why the AI community needs to talk about UBI…
The common public is largely unaware of how powerful AI is as a technology that can disrupt multiple industries in an extremely short period of time. I believe it is up to us who live and breathe all-things-AI to educate the masses about the looming threat and make sure everyone is discussing what potential solutions are available to us in order to minimize its negative impact. This will be essential to the continued sustenance of Capitalism and also to some extent our Democracy. If you are curious to learn more about this topic, here’s an in-depth discussion about it in the video embedded below.