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A Wary Futurist’s Take On Robots And The Future of Work

GE Reports Perspectives welcomes experts to analyze the impact of technology on the future of work. Here, Martin Ford, author of the New York Times bestseller, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, shares his predictions about artificial intelligence (AI) and its impact on jobs and the economy.

 

 

  1. Will advances in AI make society better off or worse off?

Technology has always, on balance, made us better off.  This is why the average person in an advanced country today has a quality of life that is in most ways superior to that of a very wealthy person 100 years ago.

I am optimistic that AI will continue this positive pattern, but it will also bring unprecedented challenges, especially in terms of its impact on labor markets.  Our objective should be to find a way to adapt our economy and society in ways that allow us to maximize the positive aspects of AI and robotics, while mitigating the negative impacts.

  1. Will AI create more jobs than it eliminates?

There is no question that AI will result in new jobs. My view, however, is that the number of jobs destroyed by the technology will ultimately outweigh the number of new jobs created. At a minimum AI could ultimately threaten virtually any job or task–at any skill level–that is fundamentally routine and predictable in nature. That could well turn out to threaten half or more of our workforce. I am doubtful that enough new jobs will be generated to absorb all these impacted workers.

It’s important to note that in most cases AI and robotics will eliminate tasks, rather than complete jobs. However, as significant portions of jobs are automated, there is likely to be consolidation that will result in fewer jobs overall. It may take as long as 15-20 years before the full impact of this process is obvious.

Another question is whether the new jobs created will be accessible to most average workers. It may be that the jobs created as AI evolves require very high levels of capability—or qualities such as creativity. It may not be reasonable to expect most of the workers who are now employed in routine, predictable jobs to be able to transition into these new areas.

  1. What jobs are most at risk to being replaced by AI?

Over the next two decades or so, any job that is fundamentally routine and predictable is likely to be vulnerable.  This will include lower wages jobs—driving vehicles, retail cashiers, fast food, etc. – as well as jobs requiring much more education.  One example of a very high skill but still routine job might be a radiologist. Some computer systems are already outperforming doctors at analyzing medical images in certain cases.

  1. Do technologists and engineers have a duty to think about the societal impact of AI, like labor displacement?

I think we all have a duty to think about this.  I think it is wrong to suggest that engineers ought not to develop automated systems because of the potential impact on jobs.  As an example, consider self-driving cars and trucks. Millions of jobs could be lost—but untold numbers of lives are also likely to be saved as traffic accidents are reduced.  Automation will also make products and services more affordable and accessible.

Finding a way to leverage the benefits of AI while minimizing the disruption to society and the economy is a challenge that will require a public policy response.  We should all be prepared to take part in developing solutions.

  1. What would you say to those who fear the impact of AI?

Given the level of potential disruption, it is entirely reasonable to be concerned. Rather than fearing the future, we should make a concerted effort to understand and adapt to these changes.  This may well require having an open mind about unconventional and unprecedented policies such as a universal basic income.

(Top image: Getty Images.)

This is a second installment of a series that features experts and their predictions about technology and the future of work.  

Martin Ford is a futurist, software entrepreneur and the author of two books: The New York Times Bestselling Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (winner of the 2015 Financial Times/McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award and translated into more than 20 languages) and The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future

 

All views expressed are those of the author.

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