August 6, 2014

AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs

Areas Where Both Groups Agree

Even as they disagree on the ultimate impact for jobs, there are several points on which these groups concur. Some of their predictions are rooted in extreme pessimism about our ability to adapt to the coming wave of technological change, but others offer a more hopeful outlook.

Our public institutions—especially our educational system—are not adequately prepared for the coming wave of technological change

One major area of agreement between both groups is that we are not adequately preparing our workforce for the technological changes that are on the horizon.

Robert Cannon, Internet law and policy expert, wrote, “Aggravating this is an educational system designed to meet the needs of Henry Ford and a compartmentalized work force. Henry Ford’s assembly line included workers, and lawyers, and accountants, and sales people, and managers. And each discipline was compartmentalized. And education involved rote learning of fundamentals that had to be memorized and mastered. In a future era where all knowledge is available on a smart device in your pocket and where Watson-type tech can analyze that knowledge for you what is the point of the Henry Ford Education? We are teaching our kids for yesterday’s workforce—and we punish kids who dare to out-maneuver teachers teaching skills from two decades ago. Our educational system is deeply broken and will reach a pressure point as it continues to produce an educated work force unable to get jobs.”

Barbara Simons, a highly decorated retired IBM computer scientist, former president of the ACM, and current board chair for Verified Voting, responded, “We are already seeing job displacement, especially in manufacturing. Increasingly unskilled or low-skilled jobs will be automated. That is why it is so important for the country to invest in education at a far, far greater level than we are now doing. Otherwise, we will create a permanent underclass with low educational skills, something that is already happening, given the inequities of public education funding.”

Russell Bailey, the director of the library at Providence College, wrote, “The propensity for narrow job-training instead of broader career-training will restrict and limit employability for many, until or unless they accept longer-range, broader career-training as the default path to ongoing employability.”

Ed Lyell, a college professor of business and economics and early Internet policy consultant dating back to ARPANET, observed, “The diminishing literacy skills, especially math and science, of our young people leave them less able to contribute to a new world based on needing those skills. The increasing ‘smarts’ of AI and robotics will continue to displace low level worker skills, except for those that are place bound.”

Paul Saffo, managing director of Discern Analytics and consulting associate professor at Stanford, wrote, “The largest impact of these systems is not on the jobs eliminated, but the jobs never created to begin with because they were born digital. Worry less about losing your current job and more about the job you will never be offered in the future because it was designed to be done by a ‘bot from the very start.”

A senior administrator at the University of Maryland-Baltimore replied, While there may indeed be a disruption, more different jobs will be created. The challenge will be that our education system may not keep pace hence we will have a group of perhaps blue-collar workers who will not have the education and expertise to work in these new jobs. We need to disrupt our educational system.”

Still others view the challenges of our educational system as part of a larger failure of our political and economic discourse. A senior policy adviser for a major U.S. Internet service provider replied, “Virtually all customer service work involving telephonic and online contact with human beings will be rendered unnecessary by better communications and computing services and by AI. Vast amounts of manufacturing, maintenance, and other lower-skill jobs will give way to robots. The nation will have failed to make the necessary changes in either its education system or its commitment to promote economic and social equality, so the impacts on those with lesser skills, training, and motivation will be dramatic, with some socially disruptive results.”

A top digital media strategist at a U.S. national public news organization responded, “Our continuing failure to re-train underskilled workers will continue to create a glut of un- and under-employed as advances in AI and robotics require workers that are more educated than ever before. Those who attain those education levels will find new opportunities while underskilled workers are left on the curb.”

Fernando Botelho, a social entrepreneur working to enhance the lives of people with disabilities wrote, “The quality of education is not evolving at the same rate as technological improvements, so dislocation is inevitable. Solutions exist, but there is no evidence that these are being deployed at the scale our societies need.”

A former chair of an IETF working group wrote, “There will be disruption, as there has been, but new technologies will continue to create jobs and opportunities. Just where those jobs are located is a different question. The United States is not committed to sufficient education to continue to lead in technology sectors.”

Rebecca Lieb, an industry analyst for the Altimeter Group and author, responded, “Enterprises will require a highly educated, digital and data literate workforce, which does not bode well for blue-collar workers, or softer skill white-collar workers. Given trends in U.S. education, this could lead to high demand for engineers from foreign countries (as we’ve seen in the past) with advanced degrees in engineering, mathematics, etc., as institutions of higher learning in this country fail to produce enough graduates with the requisite skill sets.”

Gail Ann Williams, an online community management consultant, wrote, “One curious possibility is to consider that assorted technologies could be applied to the task of making job opportunities. That sounds possible, but it is hard to imagine a change in our economic, charitable or governmental systems that could fund such a task. It’s nobody’s problem, and everyone’s.”

Garland McCoy, president and founder of the Technology Education Institute, said, “Over the last several years I have found it very curious that article after article on robotics and self-driving cars have skipped over the huge impact all of this will have on jobs. The wave after wave of disruptive technology coming from the West Coast is crashing headlong into the policies, lobbyist and special interest of the East Coast (i.e. Washington DC).”

These technological changes may result in new skills being valued, and may also lead to a rethinking of the concept of “work”

A number of experts predicted that our entire concept of “work” will undergo a significant shift in the next decade thanks to advances in AI and robotics. Among the major themes this group identified:

We will experience less drudgery, and more leisure time

Paul Jones, a professor at the University of North Carolina and founder of ibiblio.org, responded, “I for one welcome my new robot masters. I don’t welcome the loss of jobs or the depersonalization of services. The social impact is and will continue to force us to refocus on what makes us human, who we are in relation to each other, and the terms of the social contract that binds us. In the South we saw great changes when the plantation system was abandoned. Not for the best—much room for improvement—but certainly for the better.”

A professor at Stanford Law School wrote, “Robotics and similar technologies will displace lots of jobs. But those people will find productive things to do—not necessarily in fields created by robotics, but with the time that these advances have given them. Robotics and self-driving cars will free up substantial parts of our day. For some that will be a pure benefit; for others it will be partial compensation for the loss of work.”

Micha Benoliel, CEO and co-founder of Open Garden, wrote, “Robots will enable the creation of new environments that will impact local life and enable more and more people to spend time on studying and learning as access to knowledge also becomes ubiquitous. This will disrupt the way we are used to work in centralized organizations and enable the emergence of a new type of horizontal organizations”

Janet Salmons, a PhD and independent researcher and writer with Vision2Lead Inc., wrote, “I expect that the landscape of work will change. I anticipate that there will be more ‘hybrid’ jobs with some tasks done by AI agents and others by real humans. With any luck, the humans will be able to focus on more creative, innovative efforts with mundane and repetitive tasks completed by AI agents or robots. An optimistic view of social consequences is that our education will focus on higher order and creative thinking with the expectation that AI agents or robots will be taking care of the tasks that require lower levels of thinking.”

Jay Cross, chief scientist at Internet Time Group, responded, “The nature of work will change. Heaven only knows what comes after the service economy but it won’t be mass unemployment. Perhaps finally people will only need to work a few hours a day.”

A government executive wrote that the future will have positive and negative outcomes that will bring adjustments, saying, “Yes, the net effect will be negative—more jobs lost than created—[but] the social consequences would be actually positive overall. We will renegotiate the social order’s expectation of the optimal mix between leisure and work. We will have less work and more leisure. We can afford this re-alignment because of the gained productivity.”

It will free us from the industrial age notion of what a “job” is

John Mitchell, a self-employed lawyer who focuses on antitrust, copyright, trade associations, and free speech, wrote, “As with prior technological and labor-saving advances, they will tend to create other jobs of kinds that do not yet exist. But the jobs debate will continue, because even in 2025, the corporate/lawmaking complex will see it as advantageous to insist that ‘having a good job’ is the ultimate human aspiration. It will probably take over a century for humans to once again emphasize life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as being superior ‘job creation.’”

Joe Touch, director of the Information Sciences Institute’s Postel Center at the University of Southern California, replied, “Automation will continue to displace certain jobs, but they also create new jobs (creating/maintaining automation) and free us to explore other jobs as well. I don’t think this has changed since the dawn of the industrial revolution, even though every shift is decried for those displaced. Jobs will continue to shift, as will our notion of the distinction between white- and blue-collar positions.”

Jim Warren, the retired editor and publisher of several microcomputer periodicals, technology futurist columnist, and open-government advocate/activist and founder and chair of the First Conference on Computers, Freedom & Privacy, wrote, “Automation has been replacing human labor—and demolishing jobs—for decades, and will continue to do so. It creates far fewer jobs than it destroys, and the jobs it does create often—probably usually—requires far more education, knowledge, understanding and skills than the jobs it destroys. It is becoming more and more obvious that we (all developed nations) need to move—rapidly!—away from work-based income and well-being, towards and into more humane cultures, where all citizens are assured a comfortable quality of life, even if they aren’t (and cannot become) sufficiently competent and expert to fill the shrinking number of more-demanding jobs that are available now, and will be still fewer in the future.”

Rex Troumbley, graduate research assistant at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, wrote, “We can expect robots, artificial intelligences, and other artilects to increasingly displace human labor, especially in wealthy parts of the world. We may see the emergence of a new economy not based upon wage labor and could be realizing the benefits of full unemployment (getting rid of the need to work in order to survive), but we may also see an increase in unpaid micro-labor such as the kind currently relied upon by Google, Facebook, Twitter, and many other companies which get users to volunteer time or energy toward certain ends uncompensated.”

Elizabeth Albrycht, a senior lecturer in marketing and communications at the Paris School of Business, replied, “My answer depends on your definition of the word ‘job’. If we consider ‘jobs’ as they are generally thought of today, either in blue-collar or white-collar, the displacement will be extraordinary. But we cannot assume that ‘jobs’ will stay the same. Our ways of making a living are going to shift at the same time. However, policy and people shift more slowly than technology, so I suspect that in 2025 we will still be suffering through structural changes that are heartwrenching, even though we will already be seeing tremendous benefits in terms of cost of goods, ease of movement and longevity.”

We will see an explosion in new types of production—small-scale, artisanal, hand-made, barter-based

Jesse Stay, founder of Stay N’ Alive Productions, wrote, “There will be a much stronger, and greater need for engineering, and STEM-related jobs. Those in manufacturing and blue-collar work will be forced into these types of positions. The economy will work itself out on this front. At the same time, the sharing economy will empower individuals to a more socialized, community-driven economy where people sell to each other. The way people do business will change, and people will be more empowered to do business. Jobs won’t go away though—what we call ‘a job’ will change.”

Sam Punnett of Fad Research observed, “This is a tough call. As with any hugely disruptive advance, jobs will be lost and jobs will be created. There is a large and promising popular movement in ‘DIY’ or Do-It-Yourself innovations and businesses emerging to serve the Internet of Things. DIY enthusiasts work with inexpensive modular components providing the tools for invention where almost anyone can prototype gadget concepts on their own or within locally organized ‘hacklabs’ which are springing up in many urban centers. Participants participate for the joy of creating homegrown projects while others seek commercial development for their inventions. At the very least these facilities contribute to general technical literacy in a wide variety of areas from fabrication and robotics to coding and design work.”

The director for an e-learning strategies company wrote, “There’s a growing awareness of the importance of meaningfulness in life, and we can and will recognize that technology should only be used for those tasks that humans want to outsource, and that humans should retain those decisions that they wish to be involved in. We will see a return to craftsmanship coupled with an emphasis on knowledge work. Very large parts of our existence can and will be handed off to technology to free us up to do the things we want to do.”

Lillie Coney, a legislative director specializing in technology policy for a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, replied, “The pressure to better educate citizens will be tremendous. Intellectually capacity will become a nation’s greatest resource. Fewer students will leave their countries to come to the U.S. to learn and live. There will be less mobility as work can be performed from homes. The arts and craftsmanship will become more important as disposable time is increased. The larger shift is in how people earn a living and how productive member of society is defined.”

Ian O’Byrne, an assistant professor at the University of New Haven, wrote, “Robotics, AI, and ‘intelligent machines’ will displace a ton of jobs over the next 10 years. As these jobs are displaced, we’re in store for a revolution of sorts as people search for jobs that the ‘robots’ have taken. Here’s hoping for another agricultural revolution!”

A networking engineer employed by one of the largest cable television companies in the United States wrote, “It’s possible that there will be a premium on human interaction and human-made things, because a machine can do the job and replicate something ‘mostly’ but not quite as well as a human.”

The future is not set in stone; it depends on the social and political choices that we make as a society

A number of experts took pains to point out that neither path is predetermined, and that we as a society have a substantial amount of control over our own destiny—even if it may involve making some hard social and political choices.

David Solomonoff, president of the New York Chapter of the Internet Society, wrote, “Hard to give a specific number or statistic here. New jobs will also be created. One hundred years ago pundits predicted something like the Internet, the Web and widespread adoption of mobile communications—but they never would have guessed that there would be a new type of job called “web developer”. That being said, societies will have to adapt their economic policies to accommodate growing wealth created by technology and the reduction in older types of job opportunities. Those that do will prosper, those that don’t will see large scale unrest fueled by the cheap, ubiquitous weaponization of these same technologies.”

Jon Lebkowsky, web developer at Consumers Union, responded, “The answer to this question depends in part on how economies will work (will we still need traditional jobs in order to survive?) and on trends in population growth (fewer people could mean fewer jobs required). No doubt we can assume that engineering sophistication will continue to spawn and improve ‘intelligent’ machines, and that such technologies will replace workers in some contexts. However it’s conceivable that we’ll place a premium on human effort and choose meat over machine for many jobs. I suspect that decisions about deployment of potential tech surrogates will be driven by culture and politics as much as by practicality.”

Ben Fuller, dean of humanities and sustainable development at the International University of Management in Windhoek, replied, “Just because there is a technology that exists to replace jobs, it doesn't mean that it has to be adopted. Our capitol city, Windhoek, has street sweepers and recently introduced a very effective recycling program that does not require pre-sorting. In both cases machines and automated processes can do the job faster and for lower cost, but the city government had decided that the social benefit of not adopting these technologies and employing people to do the work outweighs any direct savings. Increasingly we will see work places, institutions and societies debate the benefits of new technologies and these debates will include the social impacts of adoption. The important thing to remember is that we have a choice to adopt one hundred per cent, partially or not at all.”

Dan Gordon of Valhalla Partners wrote, “We will not have evolved a new understanding of work, jobs, and the relation of humans to the fruits of society. This is fundamentally an ideological and social question, not a technical or economic one. If we came to believe that humans were some kind of Eloi entitled to live off the labor of robots and intelligent machines, we would easily accept an infrastructure where no one ‘worked’ in today’s sense (or very few), and most people did what we would today call pastimes or hobbies. But we need to get there morally and psychologically, and I doubt we will have gotten there by 2025. 2035 maybe.”

Miguel Alcaine, International Telecommunication Union area representative for Central America, responded, “Technology in general will still displace more jobs than it creates. A quality education is a preventive measure to alleviate this trend, and entrepreneurship will need to be instilled in the young people. We definitely need to promote and nurture entrepreneurs ready to invent, discover, sell and offer the products and services of tomorrow. In this scenario, societies and especially governments will have to look solutions to this trend, which cannot pass by stopping or lowering the pace of technology.”

Raymond Plzak, former CEO of the American Registry for Internet Numbers, and current member of the Board of Directors of ICANN, wrote, “Just as industrial advances and information technology advances have created new jobs and transformed others the same will continue to happen. Society, businesses and governments must become innovators in finding approaches and means for individuals to have productive and comfortable lifestyles that continue to advance human welfare. Failure to do so will exacerbate the distribution of wealth, goods and services disparities.”

A behavioral researcher specializing in design in voting and elections wrote, “All other things being peaceful (the U.S. isn’t engaged in any major conflicts abroad or at home), there’s a good chance that there will be more jobs than ever available, and that unemployment will be the lowest it has ever been. But for that scenario to play out, policymakers and corporations have to look beyond the next quarter or even the next year. And so do schools. Because the new jobs will demand skills and training that we’re not teaching now.”

Greg Lastowka, a professor of law at Rutgers University, observed, “The displacement of jobs by automation isn’t a consequence of automation alone. Robotics and AI will certainly put an end to a wide range of existing jobs, but with smart economic policy, we could have higher level of employment created by the surplus wealth automation generates. The problem of unemployment should be addressed primarily by creating a smarter political system that serves the citizenry—not by avoiding smarter machines.”

Mike Cushman, an independent researcher, wrote, “Levels of employment/unemployment are a function of economic policy and not technologically determined. My preferred answer would be it all depends.”

D.K. Sachdev, a consultant and adjunct professor in satellite systems, wrote, “Robot-like devices are introduced in a big way when they are attractive to business or are demanded by users. When that happens, they create new higher level jobs while reducing lower level jobs. Societies that organize constant skill upgrades will not suffer.”

A professor of telecommunications at Pennsylvania State University wrote, “There is a gradual process underway in which our ability to produce what humanity needs is being increasingly enabled by the use of information technology. There is always some turnover in the economy in terms of where the most jobs are, e.g., agriculture to industrial to information. When the car was introduced, buggy whip makers went out of business. It will ever be so (I hope—if there’s no innovation, we’re in trouble!). Yes, of course some sectors will lose jobs, and other sectors will gain, but the question is whether on a net basis social well-being will overall be enhanced—which I believe it will be unless the real disruption comes from senseless political decisions, in which Natural Stupidity overcomes Artificial Intelligence. People will get used to AI in the production process, but the much greater, albeit perhaps more subtle, impact will be on society at large.”

Different parts of the globe may feel these impacts differently

Finally, a notable number of expert respondents elected to look beyond the borders of the United States. These respondents noted that the ultimate employment impact of AI and robotics will vary across different parts of the globe.

Mike Liebhold, senior researcher and distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, wrote, “Globally, more jobs will be created by manufacturing of robots, but in developed countries like the U.S. and Europe jobs will be displaced by manufacturing by robots.”

Gina Neff, associate professor of communications at the University of Washington, wrote, “The displacement of jobs in 2025 will be felt in terms of shifting global geographies of work, but not as direct trade-offs between tools and workers. As long as we as a society frame increased ‘technology’ as a cause of growth in economies, then the benefits of technology substitution will be viewed by the public as worth the costs of individual jobs.”

A professor of ICT and social sciences at the University of California wrote, “We will continue to see displacement of jobs from the lower-paid to the more educated. There will always be a need for some people in low-paid service jobs, and some manufacturing, but there will be far fewer. Many of the jobs that will exist in the U.S. will be as care-givers, for older people and for children. The overseas outsourcing of jobs will slow simply because there will be fewer countries where there are low-wage workers, and robotic workers will be cheaper and more reliable. And not subject to political upheaval or natural disasters. People with education and innovative thinking will always make their own jobs, as we see in Silicon Valley. We will see deeper poverty and human suffering in places like Bangladesh, which will suffer from natural disasters as well as the loss of low-wage work.”

Rui Correia, the founding director of Netday Namibia, a non-profit supporting information and communications technologies for education and development, replied, “This question should have had a ‘maybe’ response, since such impact will largely depend on economic and educational status of any region. Some regions will simply not have reached any state of technological advancement to be impacted by AI. Regionally I suspect that first world and emerging economies will see much more AI and robotics—in transport, banking and communication sectors—impacting on the amount of time consumed doing the mundane.”

Sakari Taipale, a social policy and new technologies researcher in Finland, wrote, “This is very complicated question: the impact of the rise of robotics will vary geographically. In developed, IT-intensive, and dynamic countries, it is clear that robotic solutions will displace mechanic jobs and repetitive tasks more than they create new ones. This is actually the reason why robotics are promoted. But it is also likely that some developed countries, not all, will benefit from this new industry as it will bring along the new demand for designers, engineers, etc. The impact of robotics on the developed South is more a question mark. I am afraid that the robotics will be detrimental for these countries, if robots are only developed to serve the economic interests of the industrialized North. Work-related immigration from South to North will decrease if robots will do the work of immigrant workers.”

Robert Bell of IntelligentCommunity.org responded, “The job-destroying power of automation is balanced by the job-creating power of the economic growth created by greater productivity. Historically, these forces have tended to balance over the long term and across nations and national regions. At the local level, however, negative impacts can be severe as cities and regions fail to adapt fast enough to changing times, and income disparities become truly dangerous. The biggest question is about speed: will the pace of disruption be so great that labor markets and social norms simply cannot keep up.”

David Orban, CEO of Dotsub, wrote, “From a global perspective it is of fundamental importance to distinguish between the adoption and disruption felt in societies that are more receptive to technological advances and those that are more protective of their traditional ways of life. For example the U.S.A belongs to the first group, while parts of Europe and India belong to the second. The flexibility and dynamism of legislation will be a necessary infrastructural basis, similarly to how right of way legislation allowed phone systems or the cable industry to flourish, or how spectrum allocation enabled the mobile industry to emerge.”

Larry Magid, a technology journalist and an Internet safety advocate, responded, “Globally there will be fewer manufacturing jobs and robotics might also cut into such occupations and professional drivers and home service workers. While there will be more need for engineers, software developers and people to maintain and repair robots, it’s hard to see how these could offset the enormous number of factory jobs that will be lost. But—for better or worse depending on your view—it could shift jobs from the developing world back to wealthier countries, because manufacturing will become less labor intensive and there will be a need for more highly skilled workers who are closer to where products and services will be used.”

A professor specializing in information studies at the University of Toronto wrote, “Depends on where these jobs are being created. Are American firms outsourcing the manufacturing to developing/emerging economies, where labor standards remain low? If this is the case then I anticipate a shrinking labor force in North America.”

A senior researcher for a government research agency in Canada wrote, “I don’t know about self-driving cars by 2025—however, the domestic and industrial applications of robots will have developed considerably by then. Of course these will displace jobs that previously were done onsite. Whether this also creates jobs will depend on where the robots are made. Probably Germany and Asian countries, [it’s] hard to see the U.S. developing this into a major industry.”

A self-employed consultant wrote, “The displacement will be a continuation of the two main trends. First, low-wage jobs will be replaced but higher-wage, higher education jobs will increase. The second trend will be towards jobs in manufacturing and service continuing to migrate out of the industrialized first world as it becomes largely a knowledge-based GDP and jobs requiring more education move to urban centers—in near-city states rather than national economies.”