Pessimists predict that technological advances will benefit corporations, not workers. The way they see it, robotization in the manufacturing and service sectors will allow companies to lay off people and destroy jobs en masse. I believe artificial intelligence (AI) will create an abundance of new jobs, positions and professional roles.
As robotization spreads far and wide, even the most advanced machines will still be defect prone. They will require software updates, and parts and equipment that will have to be manufactured and fitted. Therefore, sooner or later, a great number of robot specialists, who today do not make up even one percent of the workforce, will have to enter the labor market. Certain industries stand to benefit from this process sooner than others; the automotive industry, transport, logistics, electronics, robotics, and renewables. New manufacturers, engineers, maintenance experts and professionals, equipped with novel skills will join the labor force in great numbers, finding jobs in new companies. Studies show that for every robot brought into use, an average of three new jobs will be created.
So, call me a realistic optimist.
A modest proposal: The robot tax
As I reviewed the literature on how the labor market may be affected by automation and robotization, I came across an intriguing suggestion by the journalist Ben Tarnoff in The Guardian, “Robots won’t just take our jobs – they’ll make the rich even richer.” Despite the headline, the author is not downbeat about the future. He identifies solutions for mitigating the downsides of robotization, while allowing that new technologies, which may foster substantial societal growth, will also entail threats unless politicians and economists adopt adequate regulations. Critics of today’s technologies forget that no change – especially the kind of change that affects entire job markets – can be undertaken without putting in place proper regulatory and legislative mechanisms. That the technological revolution requires legislative support should be obvious.
Without a political remedy, one dire possible future described by Tarnoff imagines the professional and social death of many groups. As technologies are perfected, and human labor accounts for an ever-lower share of the cost of capital creation, companies earn more money, but the benefits do not trickle down to the worker. Rising profits resulting from greater efficiencies are pocketed by investors and business owners without corresponding increases in wages, training, or employee growth opportunities. This process leads to the wealthy isolating themselves in luxurious guarded enclaves, leaving the jobless members of the lower and middle classes to radical resorts, including violent ones. In this bleak scenario, technology becomes a political shaper of dystopia. Is there a political instrument that could prevent this apocalyptic scenario from emerging? Tarnoff believes a robot tax could raise enough revenue to retrain displaced workers and/or supply them with basic income. This is a conclusion arrived at by EU politicians in France, as well as Bill Gates.
Now, some bad news
According to some studies, there is a 50% chance that the devices and machines that rely on artificial intelligence will be able to perform allhuman jobs within the next 45 years, and that every job will be automated within 120 years. Oxford University Professor Michael Osbourne, who specializes in machine learning, believes that machines will replace roughly 47% of our jobs in the next two decades, leaving half the population with nothing to do. In the United States, automation will destroy an estimated 9.1 million jobs by 2025. The estimated number of jobs that potentially may be eliminated in Japan is 55%, 52% in India, 51% in China and 46% in the United States.
In my view, these numbers are still too low.
Picture 1: Technical automation potential of a global economy varies among countries. Source: McKinsey Global Institute
Of course, discussing the labor market demands a broader perspective to account for the nature of the work performed, worker education, and other factors. That all matters. The data below make it clear that the negative effects of robotization and automation will be felt unequally by profession. Drivers, for example, should worry, given the rapid advances in autonomous vehicle technology. On the other hand, doctors, lawyers and teachers will probably be safe. Indeed, jobs where human interactions, creativity and emotional intelligence matter should not be endangered. Technology may, in fact, offer these professionals tremendous opportunities to enhance their performance.
Picture 2: 60% of all occupations have at least 30% technically automatable activities. Source: McKinsey Global Institute
The learning machine must be taught
As robotization advances, demand for new technical skills is bound to grow. A very interesting category of new professionals will be trainers responsible for teaching entire AI systems. These professionals will combine the competencies of programmers, psychologists and coaches. Even today, Google employs specialists whose main responsibility is to teach algorithm-based devices to work faster and more efficiently. Such trainers will work with algorithms and neural networks to ensure that they understand and mimic human behavior ever better. Chatbots, i.e. tools posed to dominate the customer service industry, must be trained to interact with humans to make communication natural. That means covering a whole range of behaviors, including human emotions. Algorithms need to be trained to respond appropriately to complications in human lives. For example, if I lose some documents in a robot-run hotel in the middle of nowhere, the first interaction I am going to have will probably be with a chatbot or a physical robot behind the front desk. Its job won’t be just to find my documents; it will be to calm me down, examine the facts, guide me, support me psychologically and refer me to whoever can solve my problem. Interactions with machines are going to be our future. Special trainers will be needed to ensure such interactions are not devoid of human emotions. These trainers will also be employed by corporations producing personal assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa who asks us about our health and how we feel. And, by the way, all this raises doubts about the claim that machines will never be able to experience human emotions and feelings. But that deserves a separate article.
Ethicists of a new era
Since early last year, the European Union has been preparing regulations designed to keep consumers safe from the undesirable actions of AI. The new laws (which may take effect this year), are intended to create rules to protect people harmed by devices that rely exclusively on algorithms. The new legislation will also regulate how our personal data may be made available to machines. And, by the way, this development will create demand for new competencies and new jobs. People will be tasked with monitoring chatbot-generated content and robot performance. New ethicists will thus check applications and machines for possible legal complications. They are likely to be in high demand in telecommunications and automated customer support. Even today, ethicists are being hired by Google (a special DeepMind Ethics and Society unit has been set up in London to address a wide range of ethical issues associated with AI). Ethicists will be needed by all companies that rely on robots, bots or virtual assistants to make their products or render their services.
Feeding the machines
All artificial intelligence relies on processing massive amounts of data. Those data need to be delivered to the machines. Facial-recognition devices, for instance, rely on large collections of photographs. One future job will involve gathering data and feeding them to machines and other devices that require large and varied data sets. The demand for data feeders may give rise to a whole new industry that will create jobs in great numbers.
Picture 3: Artificial Intelligence and automation will create demand for new jobs. Source: McKinsey analysis
Technology changes everything
While I have only offered a few examples, I am confident there is going to be no limit to the demand for new specialists.
The voyage toward artificial intelligence is complex. To say that the automation of business processes will inevitably disrupt public order is to argue the obvious, but that’s only half the story. Clearly, claiming that for every job lost to a robot three will be gained ignores the fact that those three will not be suitable for all the workers displaced. What is certain, however, is that AI will create opportunities for millions of people, liberating them from rote work, motivating them to acquire new knowledge, inspiring them to take on new intellectual challenges and enabling them to learn new things. A new technology that helps advance evolution is neither good nor evil; the potential for both is always there. Which way it goes is up to us.
Picture 4: Recently published reports key findings on the impact of automation and artificial intelligence on the jobs market. Source: individual reports