AI vs Unemployment
The age of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as an element of the science fiction world has long been forgotten: the tech media is filled with stories of companies embracing AI and all it's underlying components. It is fair to say that AI is here to stay and that it's going to change the world as we know it.
This last sentence may sound very cliché in a tech blog today. And, it's true, claims that 'AI is here to stay' are the fundamental building blocks of articles such as this one. But why are we insisting on repeating these claims? Well, because that's what seems to calm the anti-AI crowd: confirming the inevitable.
AI is very controversial. No doubt about that. Human beings have always seen themselves as the top of the food chain: the builders of spacecrafts, the movers of mountains, the controllers of pandemics. In a nutshell, human beings are the pinnacle of evolution in the universe (as far as we know :/ ).
AI was born out of the humans need of curiosity, inquiring about the possibility of building programs that could match a human's problem solving skill. Although sometimes debatable, it is widely accepted that the very first proof-of-concept of an AI program was introduced in 1956 at a historic conference at Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence.
That progressed throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, albeit with a lot of expectations coupled with shortcomings. The 90s and 2000s saw AI come into fruition. And then the questions began to be asked, what if AI replaces the very beings that created it, humans?
That thought has raised a lot of questions, even within the knowledgeable scientific community. It birthed the 'Anti-AI' crowd, a group that began to question the ethics behind the technology. Although 'Anti-AI' sounds very extremist, it's very difficult to find a compromise in the debate of whether or not AI is the welcome path that humanity needs to take. The colors seem very black or white, you either support the idea of an intelligence that is artificial or you contradict the status-quo.
Although not exactly Anti-AI, Responsible Robotics practice 'responsible robotics', teaching accountability of societal and social impact to the humans that design robots such as AI
2. A force
AI has been an instrumental part of the tech growth especially since the 1980s. Amongst other industries, Finance has been the biggest benefactor. Institutions such as banks started to use Machine Learning, a subset of AI, to detect credit card fraud and approve or reject any loan requests without the intervention of a human being.
Hedge funds meanwhile invented the quantitative investing approach, whereby complicated software were written to process algorithms based on statistical data of the market. One such hedge fund is Renaissance Technologies or RenTech founded by Jim Simmons, a Mathematics PhD from MIT.
RenTech has consistently beaten the market by delivering above market returns for their clients. This strategy has seen RenTech become the most profitable hedge fund in history.
Quantitative hedge funds have seen tremendous returns in the past decades. This success can be attributed to the dependence on AI powered algorithms. (Source: Bloomberg.com)
Insurance, BioTech, Manufacturing, Telecom are just a few industries that have also been revolutionized by AI and that revolution does not seem to slow down.
Part of this mass adoption is the advances made in computing, coupled with the emergence of BigTech (The like of Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon etc.), who have been experimenting over long years, essentially rendering most of today's products and services as mundane. BigTech benefited from an incredible economies of scale to be able to allocate huge budgets for AI development. But this massive adoption has prompted questions of morals and ethics.
If you browse a website and click on a couple of interesting photos, you get bombarded with suggestions relating to those photos when you search elsewhere. This is pure AI at play. Companies want to know what you're browsing for, where you're looking, essentially find out who you are. These data points are then used to build a persona, an image that could describe you, the potential customer.
Data fuels AI algorithms, the more data they're fed, the more they are accurate at anticipating what's next, because essentially, that's what AI is for, to do the gritty work and go beyond. As human beings, we judge scenarios based on experience, so we anticipate the outcome of a scenario within the borders of those expectations.
But giving AI cognitive and behavioral characteristics could turn the tide over a little bit. You see, these are elements that distinguish the living, thought processing beings. Turning on those traits can flip the roles, endangering the balance between man and machine.
This makes us think, with AI already taking jobs and executing them with greater precision and delivery time, what does the future look like for today's human workers?
4. Replacing humans?
The popular belief is that AI will alleviate the burden of everyday life, helping humans become humans by taking over repetitive and low decision making jobs like a customer service representative on your banking app. It has been doing that for quite a while now and the upside has been widely acclaimed.
But that begs the question of how many jobs, currently done by humans, can be affected? After all, jobs are sometimes scarce and replacing current jobs with robots will certainly be a slap in the face for the job seeking community.
Yet that fear can also be calmed when looking at the impact of robots in other industries. Manufacturing has proven to be a testing ground for a lot of robotic concepts, and in this case, we're talking about robotic machines. By replacing human beings at essential parts of he production line, companies have been able to optimize efficiency, boost productivity, gain more precision and better yet keep the workforce safe.
Although most machines have been programmed for repetitive tasks, some have been designed to understand nuances and react to things that are not in line with the ordinary flow of production. This is a very distinguishing characteristic of robots, and that thought process is only amplified with AI.
At this point, we still haven't addressed the elephant in the room: is AI here to take jobs? Should we fear the worst? Quick answer: No.
Jobs have evolved so much since the earliest days of human history, in fact, most have become obsolete altogether. For instance, before the alarm clock, there was a 'Knockerupper', a person hired to go around and knock on people's windows to wake them up. Then there were the 'Ice Cutters', they would use horse powered devices to cut up blocks of ice on frozen lakes. A dangerous job that soon vanished thanks to the invention of the mechanical refrigerator (Full article here)
'Ice Cutters' would stand on frozen lakes, risking their lives
(Source: Zenith City Online)
If there's any take away from this it's that with human evolution came innovation and with innovation came better tools and technologies that made jobs obsolete. Yet, the death of one job is the birth of another: think about the hundreds of engineers would worked on designing the first mechanical refrigerator or the new wave of technicians who appeared on the employment scene just because refrigerators need up-keeping and maintenance.
Innovation has a trickled down effect and AI is no different. AI needs machine learning engineers to build bots, create software to design algorithms, data scientists need to sniff through noisy data sets, while researchers need to knock on the next realm of possibilities of the technology. Simply put, AI could actually open the doors to more jobs as humans evolve and become more dependent of the artificial.
The goal of this article is not to argue whether or not AI is good or bad. AI is about perspective. For every generation, one technology has superseded others to crank up human evolution. The wheel in 4 BC, the steam engine in the 1800s, the airplane in the 1900s and most recently computers and software. But non will have a bigger impact than AI.
As a debatable tool of technology, AI presents ethical dilemmas, a rightly so but the upside is so much greater when the benefits of the technology is used for the greater good. The boundaries of the technology are not easy to define but a clear guideline of any potential and/or existential threat.
The debate will go on but one thing is becoming clear, AI is creating a more skilled workforce, jobs that require few decision making capabilities are being transferred to bots with better execution. The workforce is evolving much like it did in the industrial revolution. Man kind can only rejoice on the past but cherish the future, the future of AI.