Robots Won't Replace Humans, They'll Simply Transform Their Work
Are the Luddites staging a comeback? In the early 1900s, it was the British weavers and textile workers in the early 1900s, who destroyed machinery to protest newly developed manufacturing machinery they feared would rob them of their livelihoods. Recently, there appears to be a growing chorus of voices sounding the alarm on automation stealing all of our jobs to those invoking doomsday prophecies of a Hollywood-style "Rise of the Machines" taking over our world as we know it. This begs the question of whether we're seeing a resurgence of Luddite sentiments.
Critics of automation are quick to cite a 2013 University of Oxford study which predicts that over the course of the next one to two decades, nearly fifty percent of jobs may be automated. Without context, those numbers certainly could trigger anxiety - and in fact they have. Thankfully, a new OECD-commissioned study has provided some much needed context. Its authors argue that the 2013 study may have overestimated the risk for automation of jobs as its underlying assumption was "that whole occupations rather than single job-tasks are automated by technology." Overall, when accounting for the "heterogeneity of workers' tasks within occupations," the new study finds that on average across the 21 OECD countries, only 9% of jobs are automatable.
Nonetheless, the anxiety over artificial intelligence (AI) will not dissipate, and has even gotten to some of the pioneers of the tech revolution. Recently Apple's Steve Wozniak has joined the ranks of those painting a gloomy picture for humans in the age of artificial intelligence. But it's a statement made by his late friend and business partner Steve Jobs more than 35 years ago that aptly encapsulates the promise of automation. It also alludes to why these worries are largely overblown. In a video presentation filmed in 1980, a young Steve Jobs explains technology and improving human efficiency in the context of "building tools that amplify a human ability." Technology does not replace the work of humans, it transforms it.
Yes, there could be some short term job losses associated with (though the more appropriate term would be the refocusing of human capital) - but we are a far cry from the doomsday scenarios outlined by automation skeptics. I say refocusing because technology won't automate 100% of a service sector job, but the day to day work may change. For example, today I work all day in front of a PC whereas 30 years ago my desk would only have a telephone on it.
Pointing to IBM's supercomputer Watson's handy defeat of two former Jeopardy superstars in 2011, economist Michael Jones acknowledges that machines are replicating human skills. However, he argues that focusing on technology's substitutionary role "fails to appreciate how it can be complementary. Job loss in some occupations will certainly continue," he says, "but it will be accompanied by gains in different fields, just as in the past."
Throughout history, we have seen Schumpeter's "perennial gale of creative destruction" at work. And while the term sounds harsh, it has always gone hand in hand with innovation, which "itself is the inventor of new forms of work," as one observer phrased it.
The new weaving frames vilified by the Luddites along with other technological advances of the Industrial Revolution ultimately helped usher in a new age of prosperity. The personal computer and the advent of the internet equally triggered fears of large-scale unemployment at the time. Society adapted, however, and the internet - a largely unknown quantity for most people a mere twenty years ago - has transformed the way we live and work and afford us with the luxury of greater productivity for less input.
In the context of this transformation, artificial intelligence is already enabling individuals to complete tasks with greater efficiency and accuracy. I am confident that we can reasonably expect that trend to continue.
What is true for science, also applies to business, where AI could function as an augmenter of many tasks performed by white collar workers, increasing productivity while generating new jobs in the process. Opportunity also lies in the medical field. Here, the speed at which artificially intelligent machines can process and sift through data may accelerate the decision making process and allow medical professionals to focus on interacting with the patients.
To some extent, Luddite reflexes are understandable. Initially rejecting what we do not know, and with that progress, may in fact constitute an inherent part of human nature. However, we know the Luddites were wrong in the 1900s. Chances are, their reasoning is misplaced today, too. Throughout history, embracing innovation has served us more than well. We should welcome Artificial Intelligence as the amplifier of human capacity that it is.