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Experts agree that robots and artificial intelligence programs will become a regular part of life by 2025, rolling into our workplaces, stores, homes and hearts.
But there’s no similar consensus on what that will mean. In a new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center, the same authorities were almost perfectly split on the question that always accompanies talk of the coming robot revolution: How will it affect humankind’s ability to earn a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work?
Fifty-two percent of respondents said these technologies won’t displace more jobs than they create, while 48 percent said, essentially, what are you talking about, of course they will!
This is a subject of long-running debate, of course. The critical difference is that our robot overlords are no longer simply threatening to snatch away factory jobs. With steadily improving computer vision, machine learning algorithms, sensors and more, robots and software can increasingly pull off tasks that until recently required a college degree or two — like accounting, medical diagnosis and, if you can believe it, even writing news stories.
Why would blue- or white-collar employers continue to hire humans for jobs that machines can do better, cheaper and without complaint?
The optimistic view is that this technology will function as technology traditionally has, steadily improving productivity and freeing up labor to focus on innately human tasks involving creativity and problem-solving skills.
But others think that’s looking less and less like a reliable economic rule, as automation applies ever greater pressure to wages and corporate profits soar.
An Oxford study last year concluded that 45 percent of U.S. jobs could be automated within the next two decades.
In their attempt to tackle the issue, Pew asked a series of experts the following question: “Self-driving cars, intelligent digital agents that can act for you, and robots are advancing rapidly. Will networked, automated, artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?”
A selection of responses from the report follows, starting with three from the “it’ll all be cool” column:
- Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said: “I don’t think that automation is advancing any more rapidly than it has been. But in any case, automation has never led to fewer jobs in the economy in the past and never will in the future, for the simple reason that automation lowers prices which increases demand for goods and services, which in turn creates jobs.”
- Brad Templeton of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Singularity University said: “They will displace many jobs, but the rate of job creation will outpace this. Why is uncertain — it always has, in spite of regular predictions to the contrary.”
- Brian Butler, a professor at the University of Maryland, added: “Most of the job losses are related to (a) shifting labor-intensive work to parts of the world where labor is inexpensive (often enabled by communication and transportation technologies); and (b) relatively mundane automation (which is more reliable than AI). There is little evidence that large-scale shifts in employment are clearly attributable to AI/Robotics, despite fears of this occurring for the last 30-50 years. A key issue with this is risk management — how do we handle mistakes/errors/failures? The reality is that people are still better for this, if only because they can be held accountable/sued/fired/etc. That said, we probably will continue to see deskilling and reduced wages in many areas due to these technologies.”
And now a few from the naysayers:
- Mark Nall, a program manager for NASA, warned: “Unlike previous disruptions such as when farming machinery displaced farm workers but created factory jobs making the machines, robotics and AI are different. Due to their versatility and growing capabilities, not just a few economic sectors will be affected, but whole swaths will be. This is already being seen now in areas from robocalls to lights-out manufacturing. Economic efficiency will be the driver. The social consequence is that good-paying jobs will be increasingly scarce.”
- Jerry Michalski, founder of the Relationship Economy eXpedition, said: “Automation is Voldemort: the terrifying force nobody is willing to name … The race between automation and human work is won by automation, and as long as we need fiat currency to pay the rent/mortgage humans will fall out of the system in droves as this shift takes place.”
- Howard Rheingold, an Internet sociologist and writer, added: “Only the best-educated humans will compete with machines. And education systems in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world are still sitting students in rows and columns, teaching them to keep quiet and memorize what is told them, preparing them for life in a 20th century factory.”
Finally, from what we’ll call the “other good point” column, Stanford consulting associate professor Paul Saffo reminds us: “The largest impact of these systems is not on the jobs eliminated, but the jobs never created to begin with because they were born digital. Worry less about losing your current job and more about the job you will never be offered in the future because it was designed to be done by a ’bot from the very start.'”