If automation can support us then perhaps the future isn’t so bleakby Nick Whitehead / March 21, 2017 / Leave a comment
There have been a large number of opinion pieces written recently in response to research findings that suggest that many of the jobs humans currently perform will be replaced by AI or robots. Claims that up to 50 per cent of jobs will be automated within the next 20 years build on the fears that were evoked by Stephen Hawking and his predictions about “robot rebellions” and AI being the “best or the worst thing for humanity.”
I always find it fascinating that the focus following these pronouncements from such eminent people is on the negative outcomes. Perhaps we might benefit from considering the positives? Indeed, the doom-laden predictions may also face some reality checks that will act to curb the outcomes or perhaps change our view of them.
It seems undeniable that machines will be able to perform jobs that have previously required human action. Driverless cars are one of the most recent examples; perhaps taxi drivers will ultimately become redundant. But haven’t we been automating such things throughout human existence? Building a tractor to plough a field removed the need for horses. On a grander scale the industrial revolution is littered with automation examples which replaced jobs that humans had traditionally performed.
How have we responded to such change in the past? My contention is that humans have adapted to harness the automation. While some jobs have disappeared new ones have emerged. We have needed to move with the trends and exploit new and different opportunities.
A simple example from my experience illustrates a beneficial application of AI which required existing job descriptions to be reconsidered.
Atkins has supported a facial recognition solution which has been used to protect the UK Border over the last five years. Recent advances in AI have dramatically improved the performance of the recognition process, making it more secure. However, the introduction of the solution was initially met with some hostility from security guards who felt that the system was taking their job away. The reality proved somewhat different.
Once the system was in place, the guards could focus on what they do best: checking behaviour. Whilst the machine helped with the mundane aspects of the job, the guards felt that they had an elevated status—no longer just administrators of the process. In addition, when the machine wasn’t absolutely sure, the guard could step in to resolve the situation. In truth it was the proverbial “win-win,” process times were improved, security was enhanced and the guards felt more valued.
If automation can support us then perhaps the future isn’t so bleak.
At this point you are probably thinking this is all a bit naive—if something can be done then someone will do it, you can’t really contain or control it. However, one aspect that seems to be ignored in all the pieces I have read is the effect on the economy, rather than just the individual, if the predictions of job loss are taken at face value.
The jobs that are at risk are all associated with building/supplying things/services for sale. If 50 per cent of these jobs are made redundant then the people who have performed them previously will be out of work. They won’t have the economic means to support the level of consumption they once had and which helped to maintain the economy; at least not based on our current understanding of how an economy operates.
Governments won’t remain silent as tax revenues fall and social security levels increase. It is therefore likely that government will step in and regulation will be imposed to help slow down or prevent the sorts of job losses that are forecast.
I am old enough to remember all the promises that were made when computers started to become more affordable—the suggestion that we would have a paperless office and more leisure time. While we may use less paper, I am not sure that my leisure time has increased as evidenced by my overflowing inbox. In fact, it seems to me we now have to work longer and harder since we lost our original jobs!