Robots Bring on Positive Transformation, Not Devastation

Robots Bring on Positive Transformation, Not Devastation
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Should we – or can we – slow down progress to ensure that everyone is able to keep up with it? That is the apparent question on the minds of many, as newspaper articles and commentators point to the fear that artificial intelligence will lead to human beings being replaced.

The question is well-intended, and based on a sense of compassion. But rather than expressing concern about those who may be left behind, it expresses condescension. It assumes that rather than being able to take advantage of AI, people will be overwhelmed by it. But the fact is, we’ve been engaged for centuries in a process of delegating routine tasks to technology, freeing us to focus on more creative functions.

A study by the research firm Gartner demonstrates that the result of AI is not fewer jobs, but more. It concludes that by 2020, AI will generate 2.3 million jobs, exceeding the roughly 1.8 million jobs it will make redundant. By 2025 net new jobs will reach 2 million, the study found.

The impact of AI can already be seen, not just in the economy as a whole but in our daily lives. Just ask Siri.

What we are seeing is not economic devastation, but transformation. The economy has transformed itself many times over the past few centuries. People haven’t just survived, they’ve thrived.

Thought experiment: If you were able to travel back in time 200 years, how many people would you find with the skills necessary to take part in the 21st century economy? Close to zero. The jobs many perform today didn’t even exist. Many jobs of the past don’t exist today, like telegrapher. Those jobs that did exist were entirely different than today, requiring radically different skill sets.

Two centuries ago, most people in now-developed economies were probably farmers. But how many possessed the skills needed to compete successfully in the modern agricultural economy? How many knew how to operate a tractor or a combine? John Deere didn’t even invent the modern steel plough until the late 1830s. The drip method of irrigation wasn’t invented until the mid-20th century.

There were physicians in the early 19th century, but at that time the practice of medicine probably did more harm than good. You would find no one who knew how to read an x-ray, much less take one. But tractors and x-rays did not replace us, just made our lives better. AI won’t replace us now, any more than new technologies have replaced us in the past.

Clearly, one cannot take any population and transplant it to an economy 200 years later – or even 50 years later. The methods and technologies employed are too different, as are the skills required. But an economy does not transform itself from top to bottom in one step. Over the past couple of centuries – for that matter, over the past couple of decades – we have acquired an expanding store of knowledge and a wider array of technologies. People of all skill sets have kept up with them – some, as the new methodologies were being introduced, most upon joining the workforce after the new methods were disseminated. Acquiring skills and knowledge is how we congeal into an efficient workforce. If our ancestors could adjust, why can’t we?

If we believe otherwise, we are suggesting that the human ability to gain and update skills, to manipulate and improve technologies, and take advantage of new opportunities, has somehow atrophied.

Those who would put roadblocks in the way of technology and globalization are saying, in effect, stop the world – that is the only way to keep up. But rather than give people the chance to catch up, slowing down progress would leave many out of the race altogether. The more efficiently we can produce, the better we can live.

Allan Golombek is a Senior Director at the White House Writers Group. 

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