The Pew Research Center has been marking the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web with a series of reports on the Internet and our digital lives. I’ve discussed two of the reports, first The Web at 25 in the US, followed by Digital Life in 2025. I’d now like to discuss a third Pew report, - AI, Robotics and the Future of Jobs, - which was published in early August.
The impact of technology on jobs is a very important subject. “The economic challenge of the future will not be producing enough. It will be providing enough good jobs,” wrote Harvard professor and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers in a recent WSJ article. These concerns are not new. In a 1930 essay, English economist John Maynard Keynes wrote: “We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come - namely, technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.”
As it turned out, the 20th century saw the creation of many new jobs and industries. But, fears of technological unemployment have been rising in the emerging digital economy, as our increasingly smart machines are being applied to activities requiring intelligence and cognitive capabilities that not long ago were viewed as the exclusive domain of humans.
The Pew Research report explored the impact of AI and robotics on the future of employment based on the responses of nearly 1,900 experts to a few open-ended questions, including: “Will networked, automated, artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?; and “To what degree will AI and robotics be parts of the ordinary landscape of the general population by 2025?”
“Experts envision automation and intelligent digital agents permeating vast areas of our work and digital lives by 2025, but they are divided on whether these advances will displace more jobs than they create,” is the report’s tag line and overriding finding. AI and robotics applications are already all around us today, let alone the expectation that increasingly smart applications will be integrated into nearly every aspect of our lives. “Over the next decade the ubiquitous computing era will come into full force. Computers will disappear and ordinary objects will become magic,” said John Markoff, senior technology writer for the NY Times.
In fact, a number of experts observed that AI itself has been pretty much integrated into the overall world of computing. MIT’s Dave Clark wrote: “AI methods and techniques are already part of the ordinary landscape. The problem with the term AI is that it is constantly redefined to describe things we don’t yet know how to do well with computers. Things like speech recognition (like Siri), image recognition (face recognition in consumer cameras), and the like used to be hard AI problems. As they become practical commercial offerings, they spin off as their own disciplines.”
Digital technologies are now all around us, from the billions of mobile devices carried by almost every person in the planet to the explosive growth of the Internet of Things. And, as they generate gigantic amounts of information every second of every hour of every day, we are now asking our computers to help us make sense of all this data. What is it telling us about the environment we live in? How can we use it to make better decisions? Can it help us understand our incredible complex economies and societies?
This is now ushering what some are calling The Second Machine Age, and others The Era of Cognitive Computing. This kind of data-driven computing is quite different from the instruction-driven computing we’ve been living with for decades. Such data-driven, sense-making, insight-extracting, problem-solving computers seem to have more in common with the structure of the human brain than with the architecture of classic stored-program machines. But, while inspired by the way our brains process and make sense of information, the objective of these smart machines is not to think like a human, something we barely understand, but to help us deal with the huge volumes and varieties of information that are now coming at us from all sides.
The experts responding to the Pew survey predicted that by 2025 driving, transportation, and logistics will experience major changes; that intelligent agents will increasingly help us manage our day-to-day lives and be omnipresent in our homes; and that advances in AI and robotics will be particularly helpful to the elderly, disabled and sick. They said that the service sector will be particularly impacted, as many consumer applications will be handled by self-service automated systems.
But, while agreeing that AI applications will significantly advance over the next decade, a significant portion of respondents expect that the overall societal impact will be rather gradual and incremental. Our homes and cities will not look all that different by 2025.
“We're still a very long way from AI as generally seen in the movies, i.e. humanoid robots,” said one of the respondents. “A picture of a city street scene of 2013 doesn’t look too different from 50 years ago,” - except for all the people now walking around while looking at their smartphones. Another added: “Although we can already do some pretty cool stuff, there will still be plenty of kinks and bugs and vulnerabilities that need to be resolved before market confidence will be widespread.”
The experts were pretty divided on the overall impact of AI and robotics on jobs by 2025, with 52% citing reasons to be hopeful and 48% expressing serious concerns. To better make sense of the nearly 1,900 responses to their questions, the Pew Research report grouped the responses into three main categories, and identified the major recurring themes in each. Let me conclude by summarizing its key findings. Lot’s more details and individual responses can be found in the original report.
Reasons to be hopeful:
“Throughout history, technological advances have produced as many new jobs as they displace - there is no reason to think that this long-standing trend will change now.”
“Jobs will shift, as the same forces that displace certain jobs create entirely new types of employment - some of which we can only imagine today. . . Some of these new jobs will likely include designing, building, servicing, and utilizing the same technologies that are displacing other types of work.”
“There are many jobs that robots simply will never be able to do, no matter how advanced they become. . . there are many attributes - such as empathy, creativity, judgment, or critical thinking - that are uniquely human, and that technology may never be able to duplicate.”
“Political and sociological factors will prevent widespread elimination of jobs. . . cultural and sociological factors - including regulatory inertia, liability fears, and public resistance to widespread displacement of jobs by robots and AI - will prevent new technologies from taking too big of an employment bite.”
“The technology won’t be advanced enough to widely displace jobs by 2025. . . 10 years is not long enough for AI and robotics to become sufficiently advanced - or cost-effective - that they can replace huge portions of the workforce.”
Reasons to be concerned:
“Advances in technology will absolutely reduce human jobs - this process is already underway, and the logic of our economy and technological advancement make it a sure thing to continue.” Technology strategist Jerry Michalski noted that “Automation is Voldemort: the terrifying force nobody is willing to name.”
“These advances are different from what has come before them - the changes are more rapid, and are going to impact people and professions that have thus far been insulated from automation. . . and will happen so quickly as to prevent people from adjusting to new career paths.”
“As the split between highly skilled workers and others continues to grow, current problems with inequality are going to get even worse. . . and contribute to the ongoing hollowing-out of the middle class.”
“We run the risk of creating a permanent underclass. . . a large class of people who have lost their jobs to automation, and who have little hope of gaining the skills needed to obtain meaningful employment in the future.”
“If we aren’t careful, increased income inequality and mass unemployment may lead to social unrest. . . these trends - increased unemployment, widespread inequality, the emergence of a permanent poverty class - caused a number of experts to predict riots and other types of social instability in the relatively near future.”
Areas of general agreement:
“Our existing social institutions - especially the educational system - are not up to the challenge of preparing workers for the technology- and robotics-centric nature of employment in the future.”
“The concept of work may change significantly in the coming decade. . . It will free us from the industrial age notion of what a job is. . . We will experience less drudgery and more leisure time. . . We will see an explosion in new types of production - small-scale, artisanal, hand-made, barter-based.”
Finally, a number of experts reminded us that “Technology is not destiny … we control the future we will inhabit.” None of the potential outcomes are etched in stone. “Although technological advancement often seems to take on a mind of its own, humans are in control of the political, social, and economic systems that will ultimately determine whether the coming wave of technological change has a positive or negative impact on jobs and employment.”