Automation has traditionally replaced manual workers, but in its current third phase, many things that knowledge workers do today will be automated through artificial intelligence.
This concerns many of us, as reflected in the recent Rochester Business Journal Daily Report Snap Poll (“Readers weigh in on risks of AI,” March 18, 2016). Nearly 60 percent of respondents believe AI will eventually threaten humanity and 93 percent are “very concerned” or “concerned” there could be a large-scale systems failure caused by computer error.
Repetitive, labor-intensive tasks have been performed by machines for quite some time. Expansion in computational power and connectivity means jobs once thought of as only human-capable are being replaced by machines. AI is taking over tasks previously reserved for humans by providing automated perception, learning, reasoning and decision making. Advanced machine learning is furthering the domains of computer-capable tasks. The tasks and analyses that computers can perform are increasing, and increasing in complexity.
It is predicted that in the not-too-distant future, half of today’s jobs will change or disappear altogether. According to Marc Andreessen, co-creator of the Netscape Web browser: “In the future there will be two kinds of jobs: those that involve telling computers what to do, and those that involve being told what to do by computers.”
A report issued by the Foundation for Young Australians states, “60 percent of Australian students are training for jobs that will not exist in the future or will be transformed by automation,” indicating that 44 percent of jobs will be automated in the next 10 years. In addition, a 2013 study by Oxford University predicts that 47 percent of today’s jobs will be automated in the next two decades.
Prominent individuals, mostly from outside the computing fields, have raised concerns that machines will become super-intelligent and thus be difficult to control, producing an intelligence explosion: an AI system charged with the task of recursively designing progressively more intelligent versions of itself.
Evidence suggests AI-based automation is at least partially responsible for the growing gap between per capita GDP and median wages. The outsourcing of jobs that occurred in the 1990s and 2000s reallocated manufacturing jobs around the world. With increased automation, these routine jobs will be replaced by machines, and possibly brought back to the industrialized world, thus decimating many emerging economies. And, with the possible replacement of knowledge workers by higher levels of automation, the problem will also be felt in developed economies.
Harvard researchers T.H. Davenport and J. Kirby concur, writing in the June 2015 edition of Harvard Business Review that “unless we find as many tasks to give humans as we find to take away from them, all the social and psychological ills of joblessness will grow, from economic recession to youth unemployment to individual crises of identity.”
Job opportunities in the digital economy will continue to evolve as the nature of work and the skills valued change. In a Sept. 4, 2015, piece in the New York Times titled “The New Romantics in the Computer Age,” David Brooks wrote: “As Geoff Colvin points out in his book “Humans Are Underrated,” computers will soon be able to do many of the cognitive tasks taught in places like law schools and finance department. … Colvin argues that improving your cognitive skills is no longer good enough. Simply developing more generic human capital will not help people prosper in the coming economy. You shouldn’t even ask, ‘What jobs can I do that computers can’t do?’ You should instead ask, ‘What are the activities that we humans, driven by our deepest nature or by the realities of daily life, will simply insist be performed by other humans?’”
Humans are creative and critical thinkers, domains that computers cannot yet occupy with any value. However, until we can transcend technology within our professional context by expertly fitting computers into our daily tasks—which we have the sophistication to do—we will be replaced by them.
Jorge L. Díaz-Herrera is president of Keuka College.
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