Arguments For and Against Automation

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?

whats-the-deal

 

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:

  1. Impacts from automation have thus far impacted mostly blue-collar employment; the coming wave of innovation threatens to upend white-collar work as well.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

giphy25

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:

  1. Advances in technology may displace certain types of work, but historically they have been a net creator of jobs.
  2. We will adapt to these changes by inventing entirely new types of work, and by taking advantage of uniquely human capabilities.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

atlas_rkk9vXMux@2x

NOW WHAT?

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.

giphy26

9 comments

  1. chloeshepard18 · ·

    Really interesting expansion on our class last week. I’m a big fan of AI but it’s still very concerning. One argument for AI is that it will be able to do the monotonous work and leave workers more time for more important work. But won’t this still require less employees and lead to lay offs? Amazon is hiring the same amount of workers each year but the company is growing exponentially. If it weren’t for robots I’m sure they would have hired many more employees.

  2. Catherine · ·

    In finding out what will come of society with the wide implementation of AI and automation, you succinctly put it, time will tell. At the very least, we are doing the bare minimum of discussing this topic and beginning to think about the implications on us, the future employees who will either bare the burden or thrive with the automation of just about everything. As you mentioned, people have been fearing the takeover of the machine for centuries, and we have still yet to see it happen.

  3. s_courtney18 · ·

    After our class last week, I do believe that the combination of AI and human power are a well-rounded fit. Legislation and education lag far behind as we shift to using more AI in business and general life, and I would be curious to see if something similar to a “robot tax” proposed by Bill Gates would actually discourage businesses to implement these technologies down the line. I know the general population would probably agree that any technology that is used for good and is beneficial to society should be researched and developed, and I hope that the government will be able to regulate effectively, while encouraging further investment.

  4. briandentonbc · ·

    This is a really cool article. I had never heard Bill Gates’ idea of a robot tax, or thought about the fact that robots taking human jobs would have an impact on the taxes we pay. That makes me think about other ‘unintended consequences’ that we might not have considered. My small group had the conversation last class about whether or not the industries that were hopefully headed into and being trained for would end up being influenced by AI, and we came to the conclusion that they all probably would. Statistics such as the one you provided for Amazon (where the amount of human hires increased with robots), but I doubt that will be the same for every company in every industry. AI will definitely spark a lot of change in our economy and society, but we have been able to adapt to every technological advancement to date. I think we will be able to find a happy medium, but our society needs to proceed with caution, and ask the questions you have highlighted in this article.

  5. Great perspective Owen! Like you mentioned, each wave of technology posed a threat yet we’ve been able to manage. AI is inevitably the next wave and I think that we can adapt by placing a strong emphasis on STEM education and also include computer science classes into the core education of all degrees. That would make everyone at least cognizant of upcoming technologies and have some skills to protect themselves from a robot takeover in a worst case scenario. However, it may be a bit late for current blue collar workers – their fate depends on the goodwill of the company.

  6. emmaelennon · ·

    Interesting follow-up to our group conversation! I’m looking forward to getting more into the universal basic income discussion later this semester, but your blog also touched upon how far behind education is — and to agree with @diewlun2, we really need to step it up here. I’m not sure how this will/is/should be happening, but I think part of the lag in education comes from not knowing exactly what the future of AI will be or how it will affect us, and therefore, not knowing how to prepare.

  7. kaitlinardiff · ·

    Great follow-up to class! I think that automation is great in areas like grocery stores, such as Amazon Go, where we can eliminate the need for cashiers by just scanning items ourselves through an app linked to our Prime account. By getting rid of everyday inconveniences of lines and speeding up the shopping process, I think that it’s beneficial for all. When looking at how AI will continue to impact society, I think that it’s imperative to focus on what machines can’t do: emotion. Occupations with a psychological and empathetic component, such as counselors, can never be replaced by a robot. It will be a challenge to see how society balances our need for efficiency with delivering quality service, as I’m sure that there will be controversial innovations to come.

  8. Nice pro/ con approach. The problem with the “case against AI” is that they are mostly implications of AI. As long as the technology helps us do jobs better/ more cheaply, the trend toward AI will most likely continue, regardless of whether its a good or a bad thing.

  9. ericiangesuale · ·

    Really liked hearing the arguments on both sides. I love the idea of a basic income or a robot tax, but unfortunately I don’t see our government being that progressive yet. While it is a comfort that this problem has come up before and we’ve adapted, I wonder if some would argue this next wave of automation is uniquely different due to the level of our AI capability. I truly fear the severity of risk this time is higher due to AI getting closer to white-collar jobs than ever before. I guess only time will tell, but I really liked the point you had about “we control society and our destiny”, that is a really positive outlook! Hopefully the big corporations don’t ruin it..

%d bloggers like this: