Should we panic about AI and robotics taking away our jobs?

Victoria Maclennan
July 7, 2017

Robots could threaten up to half of New Zealand’s jobs in the next 20 years”  – WOW! the media has really bought into the concept we will become redundant and it will be very soon “How long will it take for your job to be automated” and “Is your job about to disappear” are just a few recent headlines.
This is cool technology and as a technologist at heard I am completely swept up in the awesomeness yet to come, my next car had better be autonomous and my next fridge had better automatically order replacement goods as I remove them – or I will be a very disappointed consumer.
But? is technological unemployment the only possible future we face as a human race? this blog doesn’t form any conclusions, it’s designed to provide you with some challenging reading points from leading commentators so you can start forming your own conclusions.

Stephen Hawking on Machine-Produced Wealth

Last year in his first Reddit AMA (Ask me Anything) Stephen Hawking proffered two scenarios – a life of luxurious leisure or of miserable poverty as possible futures:

Question: Have you thought about the possibility of technological unemployment, where we develop automated processes that ultimately cause large unemployment by performing jobs faster and/or cheaper than people can perform them? Some compare this thought to the thoughts of the Luddites, whose revolt was caused in part by perceived technological unemployment over 100 years ago. In particular, do you foresee a world where people work less because so much work is automated? Do you think people will always either find work or manufacture more work to be done? Thank you for your time and your contributions. I’ve found research to be a largely social endeavor, and you’ve been an inspiration to so many.

Stephen Hawking Answer: If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.

He has since declared we need to leave earth “I am convinced that humans need to leave earth” indicating we are facing bigger challenges technological unemployment in preserving our planet.

Sarah Kessler on Automation Doesn’t Necessarily Make Humans Obsolete

One series of articles on the future of work I have enjoyed recently comes from Sarah Kessler of Quartz, in “The optimist’s guide to the robot apocalypse” she takes us through a historical journey where fear of automation led to increased employment – automated knitting machines in Queen Elizabeth I’s era through to graphing the increase in headcount at Amazon in recent years. When considering differing studies and commentary on the subject she goes further to highlight that automation doesn’t necessarily make humans obsolete and we really don’t know what is coming next:

In 2013, researchers at Oxford sparked fear of the robot revolution when they estimated that almost half of US occupations were likely to be automated. But three years later, McKinsey arrived at a very different number. After analyzing 830 occupations, it concluded that just 5% of them could be completely automated.

Her interview with Ryan Avent (author of “The Wealth of Humans“) is another interesting read on how looking to history for enhanced education won’t necessarily help with this looming automation challenge to the same extent it did in the Industrial Revolution – “An economist explains why education won’t save us from being replaced by robots“.

Elon Musk on Universal Basic Income

The notion of a Universal Basic Income isn’t new, Switzerland held a widely publicised referendum last year which was defeated yet elevated the debate. In a short interview on CNBC on the topic recently Elon Musk speculated:

“There’s a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation,” said Musk. “I’m not sure what else one would do. That’s what I think would happen.”

You can read more and listen to the short interview on Mashable where the commentator makes some interesting counterpoints including “There’s also the tricky question of how companies pushing automation will make money if most citizens survive on a fixed, universal basic income.”

Bill Gates on We Should Tax the Robot that Takes your Job

Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.

An interesting interview which asked him a range of questions and includes a short video on the topic of taxing the robots – and robotic companies. Gates poses the possibility of innovating how tax could be applied including efficiency based, and the role governments have to play in solving these complex future issues.
In the video he also goes on to talk about doing a better job in human empathy and understanding roles, reaching out to the elderly, helping kids with special needs, having smaller class sizes as ways humans will be able to engage in a future society going so way towards answering the question of how we human beings could be employed longer term.

Predicting the Future is Hard

The more I read the more potential future pathways emerge as possibilities – the only certainty is we don’t know what we don’t know. Today France announced they would ban petrol and diesel cars by 2040 yet Tony Seba and other commentators are predicting there will be no petrol or diesel cars to ban, they will be gone by 2030.

I work with NZ Government agencies and Digital Technology Industry groups as Chair of the Digital Skills Forum which is focused on creating initiatives to prepare New Zealand for the changing nature of work – through introduction of Digital Technology Education, retraining our existing workforce, finding alternative pathways into the workforce, helping business understand the impact of freelance or “gig economy” workforce model, quantifying the skills we will require for this changing nature of work, identifying where immigration can augment and support our workforce requirements and so much more.
Bottom line here is we all know that technology is changing rapidly, faster than most of us can comprehend in this space, making it harder still to predict whether automation, AI, Machine Learning, Robotics and more will replace our jobs and just how soon so we need to prepare. Vic.

Victoria spends much of her time focusing on Digital Inclusion, Digital Literacy and Digital Rights.  

You can read her OptimalBI blogs here, or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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