In our busy, plugged-in lives, we rely on technology to help us organize our calendars, categorize our e-mails, and stay connected with those across the world. And artificial intelligence and automation is becoming more commonplace as we allow software bots like Siri and Cortana to manage our day-to-day lives. But how far will this go?
Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, economist and professor from Columbia University, predicts that “[w]e will walk in soon to a Starbucks, and our iris will be scanned, and your default mode of mocha latte venti will come out, automatically, of a machine, and you’ll take it out the other door.”1 While it may sound nice in theory to have your drink ready for you as soon as you walk in, Sachs warns that this “will transform fundamentally the labor market.”2
This is a common thought, that technology and automation will displace certain classes of workers, namely, as Sachs points out, service workers. There is, however, some debate about how much impact this displacement will have. The Pew Research Center recently canvassed 1,896 experts (defined as those who are widely quoted as technology builders and analysts and those who have made insightful predictions to our previous queries about the future of the Internet) about how they thought technology and artificial intelligence would impact the future. These experts were about split on the workforce implications. According to the survey, “[h]alf of these experts (48%) envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers—with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.”3 The rest, however, were more optimistic “expect[ing] that technology will not displace more jobs than it creates by 2025.”4 Here at T4A.org, we’ve explored this as well, hosting an entire online TechTable on artificial intelligence and what it means for the future, including the potential workforce implications.
The question essentially becomes, how do we balance the benefits of automating certain tasks with not only the disadvantages of displaced workers, but with things like privacy rights and cybersecurity risks? It’s clear that there are some things that robots can do better than humans; they can assemble parts faster, look up information more quickly, perform complex calculations, and maybe even manage bank accounts more effectively.
However, in fields like medicine, while robots may be more efficient, they may not necessarily be better. Imagine being told by a computer that you have a terminal disease. No explanation, no lead up, no comforting, just your test results spit out of a machine. As in this scenario, some things require a truly human touch.
To some extent, I think we need to let technology take over roles that it can do better. For example, it makes sense to have robotic arms assemble cars. That being said though, there is a limit. We’ve been warned about the dangers of artificial intelligence from prominent figures like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk. Even Sachs shares a scary prediction for the future:
“‘[Starbucks will be able to] predict which days you’re going to come?’ Cowen asked.
‘Yeah, they’ll have a very good idea,’ Sachs said. ‘They’ll welcome you by name, of course, as you arrive. ‘We were expecting you, but you’re 10 minutes late. Is everything okay, Mr. Sachs?’ Because Google will know where you are at any moment anyway.”5
While I don’t think we necessarily have to accept a future quite as extreme as this, I think the displacement of workers in some fields gives us a great opportunity to expand and improve our job training programs. This was something that was discussed in our recent TechTable with Deputy Secretary of Labor Chris Lu. We need to enable workers to continue to grow. We no longer live in an environment where people work 9-to-5 in the same job for their entire careers. People change jobs, even industries. Training group Bay Area Video Coalition predicts that “[b]y the year 2020, 40% of our workforce will be freelancers and contractors.” The working world is changing and we need to ensure that workers have the tools to adapt. As we determined in the roundtable, improving these programs will take buy-in from the private, public, and academic sectors. Sachs alluded to this as well, saying “that with proper government intervention everyone can be made better off during times of technological change.”6 There is a balance – we just need to find it and then work together to learn to adapt.
1 McFarland, M. (2015, Apr. 13). Why Jeffrey Sachs sees a grim future for Starbucks baristas. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/innovations/wp/2015/04/13/why-jeffrey-sachs-sees-a-grim-future-for-starbucks-baristas/
3 Smith, A. and Anderson, J. (2014, Aug. 6). AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/08/06/future-of-jobs/
Featured image via http://www.ew.com/article/2014/12/01/42nd-annie-award-nominations-2014