It’s been quite a few days.
The PewResearch Internet Center released their AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs report this week, where we were asked this question:
The economic impact of robotic advances and AI—Self-driving cars, intelligent digital agents that can act for you, and robots are advancing rapidly. Will networked, automated, artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?
I was prominently quoted on the first page:
The full quote is this:
Stowe Boyd, lead researcher at GigaOM Research, said, “As just one aspect of the rise of robots and AI, widespread use of autonomous cars and trucks will be the immediate end of taxi drivers and truck drivers; truck driver is the number-one occupation for men in the U.S.. Just as importantly, autonomous cars will radically decrease car ownership, which will impact the automotive industry. Perhaps 70% of cars in urban areas would go away. Autonomous robots and systems could impact up to 50% of jobs, according to recent analysis by Frey and Osborne at Oxford, leaving only jobs that require the ‘application of heuristics’ or creativity…An increasing proportion of the world’s population will be outside of the world of work—either living on the dole, or benefiting from the dramatically decreased costs of goods to eke out a subsistence lifestyle. The central question of 2025 will be: What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the ‘bot-based economy?”
AI, robotics, and the future of jobs. With Watson angling for the corner office, no job is safe from automation. Are the robots coming to take our jobs? The Pew Research Center recently asked nearly 2,000 technologists what the employment landscape will look like over the next decade, as artificial intelligence and robotics continue to gain ground. The experts, who included CEOs, tech journalists, Internet pioneers and researchers at tech vendors, are divided almost 50-50 on whether AI applications and robots will displace more jobs than they create. Some foresee more income inequality and more blue and white-collar displacement. “The central question of 2025 will be: What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the ‘bot-based economy?” wonders Stow Boyd [sic], lead researcher at GigaOM research. Others are more optimistic, citing humanity’s ability to bounce back. “Technology will continue to disrupt jobs, but more jobs seem likely to be created,” said Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher for Microsoft MSFT -0.30% Corp. So the short answer is that the jury’s still out on whether we’re heading towards a breakdown in social order or a new era of techno-based entrepreneurship. Someone should ask Watson what it thinks.
Interesting that the business publications, like Forbes and Fortune, were more interested in my predictions about robot sex partners than the impacts on work:
Robotic sex partners will be a commonplace, although the source of scorn and division, the way that critics today bemoan selfies as an indicator of all that’s wrong with the world.
One thing that has been made clear in the fallout since the report was published: there is a sizable contingent who — like me — are convinced that increasing automation will lead to a large reduction in employment, and there appears to be an equally vocal group that believe that either new work will arise that only people can do or governmental controls will be put in place so that people will be employed whether we need them to be or not.
The authors of the report, Aaron Smith and Janna Anderson, characterized the various positions of the hopeful (52%) and the concerned (48%):
Key themes: reasons to be hopeful
- Advances in technology may displace certain types of work, but historically they have been a net creator of jobs.
- We will adapt to these changes by inventing entirely new types of work, and by taking advantage of uniquely human capabilities.
- Technology will free us from day-to-day drudgery, and allow us to define our relationship with “work” in a more positive and socially beneficial way.
- Ultimately, we as a society control our own destiny through the choices we make.
Key themes: reasons to be concerned
- Impacts from automation have thus far impacted mostly blue-collar employment; the coming wave of innovation threatens to upend white-collar work as well.
- Certain highly-skilled workers will succeed wildly in this new environment—but far more may be displaced into lower paying service industry jobs at best, or permanent unemployment at worst.
- Our educational system is not adequately preparing us for work of the future, and our political and economic institutions are poorly equipped to handle these hard choices.
I’ve been asked by Aaron to appear at the Pivot Conference this October to speak on this theme.
At the time that the telephone switch was being developed, projections showed that all the women in America would have to be telephone operators in the next 20 years to handle the growth of telephone use. Now the number of telephone operators is functionally zero. Yes, those workers transitioned from that work to other occupations. If 85% of other occupations are either eliminated or disrupted out of existence, and all that remains is a narrow suite of domains where AI and robots can’t play because of insufficient creativity or human emotion — like improvisational jazz, playing Go, or nursing the sick — we will hit a wall.
It’s hard to imagine that our economy can respond to this challenge as quickly as our technologies can make it a reality. We’re still living in a world where women are paid 87¢ for every $1 that men make, and women have been in the workforce for a hundred years. Culture is slow but technology’s fast.
I tweeted earlier this week:
— Stowe Boyd (@stoweboyd) August 6, 2014
In the next few weeks I plan to write a bit more about this, and it will form one thread of a research note I am working on about the Gig Economy.