Last week’s class got me thinking more about AI. I noticed that I had some dissonance between my ideas of AI. On one hand, I had this idea of AI like The Kitchen of the Future; a sort of future vision that will probably never be what AI will become. On the other hand, AI is already up and running – practical and useful. I even did my presentation on it!
So maybe I can find somewhere in the middle, something that I can see as the future of AI. I then started thinking about the advantages of AI. Use your imagination, it seems like almost anything is possible. What about the DIS-advantages of AI though?
I thought I would pick a recent topic in the political realm — What is the byproduct of AI? What’s the deal with automation? Does it take our jobs? Does it create jobs? Does it improve our lives?
THE CASE AGAINST AUTOMATION
With advancements in machine learning and AI, the reasonable person would come to the conclusion that computers and robots will start performing human tasks once they are more capable. I think there is an argument out there we’ve all heard before, right? Something along the lines of, “immigrants aren’t the largest threat to taking American jobs, robots are.” A Pew Research Poll, done in 2014, of experts in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence show that there are a few concerns moving forward. From the poll, these are their top 3 concerns:
- Impacts from automation have thus far impacted mostly blue-collar employment; the coming wave of innovation threatens to upend white-collar work as well.
- 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.
- Our educational system is not adequately preparing us for work of the future, and our political and economic institutions are poorly equipped to handle these hard choices.
Yikes. Prof Kane asked us in class to a mostly mummed silence, “What jobs won’t be impacted by AI?” As a class, we weren’t really sure how it was going to influence our careers in the future. A few people responded that all we can really do now, as non-technical workers, is to be literate in possible changes and try to be in front of programs and movements within companies so we’re not left behind. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t really leave me feeling confident.
THE CASE FOR AUTOMATION
Well, there is some good news out there. Half of the experts from the previous poll also had a positive outlook on robotics and artificial intelligence. Here are their top 4 arguments:
- Advances in technology may displace certain types of work, but historically they have been a net creator of jobs.
- We will adapt to these changes by inventing entirely new types of work, and by taking advantage of uniquely human capabilities.
- Technology will free us from day-to-day drudgery, and allow us to define our relationship with “work” in a more positive and socially beneficial way.
- Ultimately, we as a society control our own destiny through the choices we make.
I read that list and I think of opportunity. Deloitte estimates that over the next decade, 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will be created but only 1.5 million will be filled. Sure, that’s a pretty wide skills gap but that is a huge opportunity for universities, trade schools, and in-house training.
An example of automation is Amazon. Now, I know that this may not be the best example because Amazon is such an outlier in the business world but it’s easy to demonstrate a pattern with them. Generally, automation should lower prices which increases demand. Amazon will sell more products which increases profit, which would lead them to reinvest, which would lead them to produce more, and in turn, provide more employment. In the last 3 years, Amazon has increased the number of robots working in its warehouses from 1,400 to 45,00. But over that same time period, the rate of hiring workers hasn’t changed.
The good news is the Pew Research Poll is divided on the impact economically, and more specifically, the employment picture in the US. In short, I don’t think anyone really knows what’s going to happen. We’ve also been here before. Nearly 500 years ago, Queen Elizabeth denied a patent to William Lee for an automated knitting machine. She was concerned, like we are today, that this machine would reduce workers to starvation by an invention depriving them of their livelihood. But, time and time again, widespread unemployment has never happened due to technology.
There are other propositions out there to deal with automation. Bill Gates suggested that we put a ‘robot tax’ on companies that use automation heavily. The idea is that it would reduce economic inequality and would give our government the same amount of public money to provide social services that we currently enjoy. The other is basic income. Again, the idea here is to net out the margins gained through automation and give the money back to the people in order to inject cash flow in our economy.
I don’t know how I truly feel about these propositions yet, but I think the conversation is a good one to have. Will the market take care of itself as it has done in the past? Or will we finally need to step in with proactive measures to prevent mass inequalities and poverty? Time will tell.