Man versus machine

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Man versus machine.

The concept of robots and artificial intelligence (AI) taking our jobs and leaving humankind with nothing to do is confronting.

Because many reports about AI-empowered robots are written by analytical people who quote statistics and timeframes beyond our imagination, I suspect few of us have heeded their claims.

A World Economic Forum article entitled This is when a robot is going to take your job caught my attention. It discussed the findings of a survey conducted by the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.

More than 350 AI academics and  industry experts from around the world were asked when they thought intelligent machines would out-perform humans at a variety of tasks and occupations and when they would be superior at all tasks.

In the next decade, the respondents expected AI to out-perform humans in tasks such as translating languages (by 2024), writing high-school essays (by 2026) and driving a truck (by 2027). Robots were expected to take longer to perform better than humans in retail (by 2031), writing a bestselling book (by 2049) and working as a surgeon (by 2053).

Tasks most likely to be dominated by AI in the short term included assembling Lego, transcribing speech and folding laundry (yay!).

Ironically, the respondents suggested machines would take nearly 100 years to out-perform humans in the job of AI researcher – and the experts believed all jobs would be fully automated in the next 120 years.

While some of the findings sounded scary, I was comforted by the arguments of several AI sceptics who suggest the AI revolution won’t be nearly as quick or as disruptive as predicted.

We can learn a lot by looking at the technology revolution that has been in place for a couple of decades.

The explosion of information technology was supposedly going to put many jobs at risk – ATMs would replace bank tellers, online learning would displace most teachers and digital diagnostic tools were set to make many doctors superfluous.

Yet we still have plenty of bank tellers – arguably more than 20 years ago – and online teaching hasn’t dented the demand for teachers. As for digital diagnostic tools, while we may type our symptoms into Doctor Google, most people still visit their doctor to find out what’s really wrong.

AI, like technology, might be smart (it is human intelligence, after all) but it is not sociable; people want to interact with other people. So even when IT made it cost-effective to replace people with computers, businesses simply moved people to other jobs alongside the computers.

Rather than AI taking our jobs, perhaps humans will simply move to other jobs alongside the robots.

American journalist Ezra Klein says: “As technology drives people out of the most necessary jobs, we invent less necessary jobs that we nevertheless imbue with profound meaning and economic value. When AI comes, humans will find things other humans want them to do and they’ll decide those things have value. We’re good at that.”

Klein notes that, in the last few hundred years, the industrial revolution saw machines take over the hard jobs that humans had previously undertaken — like the production of food and collection of water. These jobs were replaced by new ones that humans thought necessary - like psychologists, customer service representatives and wedding planners…   

We can relax. Robots might take our jobs but we’ll get new ones, albeit not as important or valuable as the jobs we lost.


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