There is what appears to be a larger than usual fear these days about the ominous likelihood of our jobs being replaced by machines… or some artificial intelligence fueled automation hybrid capable of rendering many folks permanently unemployed.
Visions of driverless cars and trucks, A.I. (artificial intelligence) infused paralegals and robots on the shop floor have justly scared many into thinking that our post-industrial ‘knowledge revolution’ is leading to a hollowing-out of the middle class that will leave massive swaths of our populace grimly unemployed.
While this same sort of thing has repeated itself for centuries, when one revolution (agricultural, industrial, financial, knowledge…) replaces the prior one, only to see the old jobs replaced by newer, heretofore non-existent ones, this time, say the doomsayers, it’s different.
Or is it?
That’s the basis for a series of articles published recently in The Economist (6/25/16). We parsed through them to get to the core of the matter, and we’ll share with you in our next couple of posts what leading economists think about the current jobs (or joblessness) situation, the new economy, and what it all means for you and me.
Technologists and economists alike today are debating the implications of A.I., a field which has held the promise of machines performing previously human tasks any day now… for about 50 years. But this time, many say, that time really is getting close at hand. A study out of Oxford in 2013 found that nearly half of all American jobs were at high risk of being “substituted by computer capital” soon. Merrill Lynch recently predicted that within ten years the “annual creative disruption impact” from artificial intelligence could amount to $14 to $33 trillion, including a $9 trillion reduction in employment costs thanks to automation of knowledge work, and another $8 trillion in manufacturing and health care. $2 trillion in savings alone from self-driving cars and drones are expected.
Most ominously, McKinsey Global says that in terms of both time and scale, artificial intelligence (think robots, among other form factors) is contributing to a transformation of society with roughly three thousand times the impact of the Industrial Revolution.
Now, as we noted, we’ve heard these concerns before, dating back hundreds of years. Machines have been grimly viewed as the destroyer of jobs since at least 1821 when economist David Ricardo spoke of the “machinery question… and the influence of machinery on the interest of the different classes of society.” In 1839 Thomas Carlyle railed against the “demon of mechanism” which was guilty of “oversetting whole multitudes of workmen,” as the Economist article points out.
Today, “deep learning” systems are allowing machines to accelerate their learning capabilities as never before. In fact, “Instead of people writing software, we have data writing software” notes the CEO of NVIDIA, a chip company. Systems are learning for themselves today, mining their data to get smarter faster, without the need for much human intervention. The progress is real. The results are real. This stuff works, notes tech pioneer and venture capitalist Marc Andreesen.
The question then becomes: What will it mean? We’ll take a look at a few of The Economist’s editors conclusions in our next post, so stay tuned…