Human ingenuity means the robots won’t take all our jobs

A small piece of computer coding acted as the co-pilot in a US military jet for the first-time last week – and it could have significant implications for the future of work.

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  1. Garry White

The test represented a new milestone in the evolution of warfare, after an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm took over one of the pilot’s most important jobs. The computer code was responsible for finding the correct targets – before making the decision to bomb and destroy.

The US military has been slow to develop and deploy algorithms and robots – but all this is changing rapidly. This is a direct result of Washington’s geological rivalries with China and Russia, as both countries have used their state-directed capitalist systems to become leaders in the technology.

America has already seen China leapfrog its own technology sector to create better infrastructure for 5G communications systems. They are now concerned the same is happening with AI.

Ideological rivalry

The introduction to a study by the Congressional Research Service, an independent arm of the US legislature, published in November clearly showed why AI is moving up the agenda.  

“Potential international rivals in the AI market are creating pressure for the US to compete for innovative military AI applications. China is a leading competitor in this regard, releasing a plan in 2017 to capture the global lead in AI development by 2030,” the report noted. “Russia is also active in military AI development, with a primary focus on robotics.”

Ideological rivalries between Russia and the US propelled man to the moon in the 1960s. It was a space race between communists and capitalists, as each side tried to demonstrate the superiority of their systems of governance. But being a leader in AI is arguably much more significant than the – largely symbolic – race to the moon. Any country that becomes the global leader in AI will have real advantages here on earth. The infrastructure of the future is being constructed on the technological developments that are being made today. Owning that infrastructure will bring great power and influence.

When the military gets involved in prioritising a technology, it is usually a sign that its development will accelerate before spilling over into everyday life. World War One gave us blood transfusions, World War Two the rocket jet. GPS, which runs your car Sat Nav, was a US Cold War military project. They all owe their existence to military research caused by rivalries between countries.

Many jobs at risk

Outside the military, a recent study by the World Economic Forum (WEF) concluded that the workforce was already automating faster than it had previously expected. The WEF now expects machines and lines of computer coding will displace 85 million jobs over the next five years.

A two-year study from McKinsey claimed that by 2030 AI and robots could replace up to 30% of the world’s current workforce. The consultancy concluded that – in terms of scale – job losses caused by the automation revolution could rival the “green revolution” in agriculture in the 1900s and the automation of manufacturing in western nations in the 20th century.

Of course, peddling doom always grabs attention. Humans have been telling each other stories of looming disasters and potential Armageddons for centuries. But human ingenuity found the solutions that solved these problems.

Portents of doom – or human nature?

Predictions of mass starvation because of overpopulation – as first popularised by Reverend Thomas Malthus in his 1798 pamphlet: An Essay on the Principle of Population – have never come to pass. Food production managed to keep up with the rising global population because human intelligence solved the problem in the agricultural green revolution. We developed intensive farming and irrigation techniques and focused on high-yielding crops.

There are many other examples. Peak Oil proponents claim that global crude oil production was about to hit its maximum rate, after which production would plunge and the price of energy would soar. Today the world is awash with oil as new extraction techniques help keep fields alive – and the development of “green” alternative energy supplies means the transition away from oil-produced energy is well underway. Once again, human ingenuity solved a problem that doom peddlers argued was unsolvable. Fears over AI causing mass global unemployment are all a bit overcooked.

It’s very easy to identify sectors where jobs will be lost. The most susceptible to automation include physical activities in predictable environments, such as operating machinery or flipping burgers at a fast-food outlet. Data processing is another area where machines could do work better and faster. However, it is almost impossible to get a handle on how many jobs these new technologies will create. These are less visible and spread across different sectors and are likely to be numerous. Cleary, the lower skilled a job is, the higher the risk of automation – but one reassuring thing we have been taught by the Covid-19 pandemic is that governments worldwide will not allow such mass unemployment to materialise because of the civil and economic strife that it would cause.

Even the USA, the world’s torch carrier for free-market capitalism, passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (Cares Act) earlier this year to provide government assistance to people who lost their jobs because of the crisis. So, most people shouldn’t be too worried about the threat of unemployment caused by robots taking their job away. Doomsayers will always peddle doom – but remember that humans are problem solvers. There’s every reason to expect that, collectively, we will solve this problem too.

A version of this article appeared in the Daily Telegraph

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