Will the Robot Revolution Put Us All Out of Work?

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Credit: Limits to Growth

The Pew Research Center polled nearly 1900 experts on the rapid advancement of robotics technology and AI and the associated impact on the modern job market.

Most of us have experienced the “career creepies,” those moments of intense anxiety about our place in the work world. I had one of those a few months ago when The Associated Press said it would use computer-generated stories to supplement its coverage of corporate earnings announcements. Yikes! If a writer isn’t safe from automation, who is?

I’ve since calmed down, and while I don’t worry much about the robot apocalypse, I do worry about how our economy will manage to absorb the millions of workers whose jobs are being automated out of existence. That’s a huge topic for a short blog post, but a new report by the Pew Research Center called “AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs” is a good starting point.

Pew canvassed nearly 1900 people who are doing some serious thinking and writing about technology, and asked them a series of open-ended questions about how developments in technology and artificial intelligence (AI) will shape the job market through 2025.

I was impressed with the caliber of people surveyed. They include, to name just a few, Vint Cert, a father of the Internet; Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher for Microsoft; JP Rangaswami, chief scientist for Salesforce.com; and John Markoff, a highly regarded science and technology writer with The New York Times.

There was no consensus — if there had been, I’d be suspicious. Nearly everyone agrees that many jobs now done by human workers will disappear, but the optimists argue that technology always creates more jobs than it displaces. They suggest that won’t change. Others argue that automation has historically affected mostly blue-collar employment; the coming wave of innovation threatens to upend white-collar work as well.

For example, Robert Cannon, an Internet law and policy expert, predicts, “Everything that can be automated will be automated. Non-skilled jobs lacking in ‘human contribution’ will be replaced by automation when the economics are favorable. At the hardware store, the guy who used to cut keys has been replaced by a robot. In the law office, the clerks who used to prepare discovery have been replaced by software. IBM Watson is replacing researchers by reading every report ever written anywhere. This begs the question: What can the human contribute? The short answer is that if the job is one where that question cannot be answered positively, that job is not likely to exist.”

What worries me (aside from the creation of robot reporters) is the possibility that automation will deepen the already wide gap between society’s top earners and everybody else. As the report put it: “Certain highly-skilled workers will succeed wildly in this new environment — but far more may be displaced into lower paying service industry jobs at best, or permanent unemployment at worst.”

Michael Glassman, associate professor at Ohio State University, was one of those who said the number of jobs being destroyed by AI has been exaggerated: “I think AI will do a few more things, but people are going to be surprised how limited it is. There will be greater differentiation between what AI does and what humans do, but also much more realization that AI will not be able to engage the critical tasks that humans do.”

A number of experts said that 12 years is simply too short a time span to see major social change forced by technology. Others argued that some of the most attention-grabbing technologies, such as self-driving cars face very steep barriers to widespread adoption.

“The vast majority of the population will be untouched by these technologies for the foreseeable future. AI and robotics will be a niche, with a few leading applications such as banking, retailing, and transport. The risks of error and the imputation of liability remain major constraints to the application of these technologies to the ordinary landscape,” said Christopher Wilkinson, a retired European Union official and board member for EURid.eu, which oversees domain registrations in Europe.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this report. There’s a lot to think about here; maybe pour a cup of coffee and give it a leisurely read. It is, after all, about your future.

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