The Robots are Coming: AI and The Future of Employment

Great minds such as Alan Turing coined the term artificial intelligence sometime around the 1950s, but after more than half a century of silence around the topic, the last five years have seen a surge of interest in it. It’s more than interest actually, there’s excitement bubbling and that’s mainly due to “deep learning”. This new focus is looking at developing the performance of Convolutional Neural Networks. This is the system that is made up of a neural network (artificial brain cells) that works through examples that repeat themselves and thusly is able to ‘learn’. We take a look at the relationship between AI and employment.

There are many debates surrounding the AI trend, but we are going to be looking at its potential impact on the employment market. Already we have seen impressive uses for it such as driverless cars, companies implementing it to improve productivity and sales, and WiFi aided Barbies that use speech-recognition that can talk and listen to children.

So, what are the predictions for the job market? It’s safe to say that for hundreds of years, people have been tentative, if not downright fearful of any innovation to automate jobs. Even as far back as the 1500s inventions as basic as knitting and weaving machines were deemed a threat to employment safety, with Queen Elizabeth I sending the inventor into exile to only end up dying penniless and shunned. And she wasn’t the only one, history has a number of these examples.

Is it different in the 21st century though? While no one is sending Elon Musk to Elba, the fear of technology taking jobs still is alive and kicking that’s for sure. Most will say a future of robot valets catering to your every need sounds like the dream, however some commentators warn of a much bleaker future. Technology has created more jobs than it has extinguished in the last century, but the impact of it is different today than before with a never before seen speed of technological change and requirement of upskilling. A recent report published by Citi in partnership with the University of Oxford found that increased automation could lead to even greater inequality.

It’s expected that three pivotal changes in employment will be seen: loss of jobs, work being done better by machines, and the creation of new jobs. With the new products, services and sectors that will form as a result of AI, the relationship between humans and computers will also change. Up until now, advancements in technology have mainly had an impact on ‘blue-collar’ roles, however it appears to be creeping into ‘white-collar’ territory as well. It’s likely that medium skilled jobs will slowly start vanishing, while new digitally inclined roles will be needed.

Moshe Vardi, a computer science professor at Rice University in Texas, is quoted to have told the American Association for the Advancement of Science that:

We are approaching the time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task. Society needs to confront this question before it is upon us: if machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?

A typical answer is that we will be free to pursue leisure activities. [But] I do not find the prospect of leisure-only life appealing. I believe that work is essential to human well-being.

He isn’t the only scientist to have warned against our future in the face of AI, with Stephen Hawking saying that “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of human race” in an interview with the BBC in December 2014.

There are predictions that appear to be in line with Vardi’s warning, projecting that 5 million jobs will be lost by 2021 in developed and emerging economies. It has also been estimated that 35% of UK jobs are at risk of being lost to AI in the next 10-15 years. It’s also estimated that 47% of jobs are at risk of being obsolete in the US and as high as 77% in China. Automation could see the loss of jobs in several lines of work such as sales and services, office support, retail, wholesale and transport/logistics. Most of these jobs are low-skilled, however skilled jobs are increasingly risking replacement. For example, “roboadvice” is currently being deemed as the next big thing in finance. This is a system that would be able to recommend investment products to people in the same way as an advisor. The legal sector is also finding uses for AI, with it being used to substitute some areas which paralegals and patent lawyers dabble in such as scanning legal briefs and precedents for pre-trial research.

All this might sound daunting, however it is important to keep in mind that the impact of AI on jobs will have its limitations. Arduous and repetitive tasks will indeed be taken over by AI. Machines and systems are already put in place in order to automate routine tasks, however calculations can only be made from a technological point of view, without consideration of other factors.

Citi’s global equity product head Robert Garlick states:

“The big data revolution and improvements in machine learning algorithms means that more occupations can be replaced by technology, including tasks once thought quintessentially human such as navigating a car or deciphering handwriting.”

Another issue that the same report leans towards is inequality. Technology will destroy low-skilled jobs and replace them with high-skilled ones, making low-earning, under-educated people the hardest hit. Those less well-off will have to retrain or locate.

The Citi report states:

“This downward trend in new job creation in new technology industries is particularly evident starting in the Computer Revolution of the 1980s. For example, a study by Jeffery Lin suggests that while about 8.2% of the US workforce shifted into new jobs during the 1980s which were associated with new technologies; during the 1990s this figured declined to 4.4%. Estimates by Thor Berger and Carl Benedikt Frey further suggest that less than 0.5% of the US workforce shifted into technology industries that emerged throughout the 2000s, including new industries such as online auctions, video and audio streaming, and web design.”

All in all the magnitude of the impact that people will see on their employment due to AI will depend very much on their skills. It’s a challenge predicting what jobs will rise in the future, but they will surely be more skilled than previous jobs. The main benefits of AI will be seen by those highly skilled, while the middle class and the lower class will be faced with the prospects of retraining, focusing on learning skills from schools or relocating.

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