In today’s world, the majority of us are slaves to technology. We walk around with a supercomputer in our pockets (or more often than not, glued to our hands) capable of accessing the millions of terabytes of data floating about on the cloud. We rely on technology for the simplest of tasks, from getting to work to buying breakfast and this makes us scarily reliant on the technology that we take for granted. But should we be worried about technology surpassing us and taking over our livelihoods? Maybe……
Professor Vardi, a professor in computational engineering of Rice University, states that “We are approaching a time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task"i. Robots are now capable of doing more and more jobs: boning chicken, pharmacists, bartending and prison guards. But more worrying is the fact that more complex tasks are not safe. Over 80% of stock markets currently use robot traders. Over 230 robo-surgery operations were performed in 2015 alone. Even creative jobs like journalism are being poached by robots – the Associated Press now generates some news stories written by a system developed by Automated Insights. (2) At our current rate, that the ‘rise of the robots’ could lead to an unemployment level of 50% in the developed world – and then even CEO’s will not be immune. The World Economic Forum predict that AI will claim more than 240 types of job by 2020.ii
This all seems a little doom and gloom, evoking images of redundancy and own brand instant noodles for dinner, but will this technology ultimately benefit mankind? Should we even be panicking? Not necessarily. History has shown us that technology has proven to be a job creator, not a destroyer. The industrial revolution sparked panic throughout the workforce as it worried about mechanisation stealing jobs. In a way, this panic was well founded. In 1900, 40% of the US workforce was rooted in agriculture; today this figure is just 2%. But the workforce is still present and people are still employed, just in other areas. A recent study found that technology actually created more jobs than it destroyed in the last 144 years – saving many people from dull, repetitive and dangerous work.ii
Just as in days past with the development of trains, motor vehicles and tractors, AI will need humans to build the machines and code them. There will be waves of innovation and new jobs created. The focus of our efforts should be on training people in the skills they need to handle the jobs of tomorrow, not panicking about potential redundancies from jobs which are redundant.
As a part of the labour force, it is our responsibility to prepare for the future. Technology is developing at an incredibly fast rate and changing so quickly that the skills that make you a desirable employee today, might be worthless tomorrow. In this work environment, it is of the utmost important that workers are willing to change, evolve with the times and put in the effort to learn the skills necessary to keep up. This may sound harsh, but would you hire a person who wasn’t literate with emails? Someone who didn’t know how to use a word processing tool, or someone who wasn’t comfortable using the internet? No. It would not be practical to hire such a person in the modern world. Yet just 20 years ago, no one could do any of these things. Likewise, 20 years from now we will most likely be equipped with skills that we could barely imagine now.
Overall, we humans are a tidy little package capable of amazing and varied achievements that no one robot can yet achieve. But the rise of the robots is undoubtedly coming and we need to prepare ourselves for this. In order to stay relevant, we must seek out new ideas, ask questions and surround ourselves with varied talent.
While it’s certain that AI technologies will replace segments of the workforce, as history has shown, it is very unlikely that human labour is going to be totally eliminated. People are likely no closer to being shoved out of work today than they were centuries ago. The question is, will the technology that comes be for the better? This is a very loaded question, certainly one that is too big for me. Maybe I should Google it…
i. Telegraph, 2016
ii. Fortune Insiders, 2016