AI: Just Because We Can, Does Not Mean We Should AI, like technology, has the potential to put people out of work

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“I’m with the Band” – Artificial Intelligence

It started slowly. Whether you have been conscious to this or not, our lives today are already infused with Artificial Intelligence (AI). If you filed your taxes this year with H&R Block, perhaps you heard of a new addition to the H&R team, Watson. Watson (AI) combines over 60 years of tax expertise with IBM’s cognitive computing technology resulting in faster, smarter, and more accurate returns. Many of us don’t have to go outside our own homes to find signs of artificial intelligence. The Amazon Echo was first pitched as a fancy Bluetooth speaker. Now, Alexa is the first AI (and personal assistant) many of us have welcomed into our daily lives.

So far most of the applications of AI we’ve seen have been to the likes of this model: take something we are already familiar with, could be taxes or Bluetooth speakers, and sprinkle a little AI on top. But these uses of AI are just the tip of the iceberg. What happens to our workforce when AI no longer needs a plus one to get into the party?

AI has the ability to permanently disrupt business and temporarily disrupt our economies. If we were all to switch from taking out mortgages to 3D printing our own homes, what would that mean for construction workers? What will that mean for the economy? The impact will be pervasive.

The Inevitable, The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Kara Swisher, co-executive Director at Recode, very eloquently summed up the force of the fourth industrial revolution: “In Silicon Valley, there are lots of big minds chasing small ideas. Well, we’re entering an era of big brains focused on big ideas – digital that matters – using these technologies to transform how we are educated, fed, transported, insured, medicated, and governed.” (What To Do When Machines Do Everything, 2017)

The lines between the physical, digital, and natural worlds are obscuring. The first three Industrial Revolutions built the life we know today. We used water and steam power to mechanize production, electric power to mass produce, and electronics and information technology to automate that production, and now this Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the last – at an exponentially faster rate than the previous three.

The World Economic Forum (WEF), whose mission echoes their commitment to improving the state of the world, published five key areas of risk in their 2017 Global Risks Report. Managing Technological Disruption was number three. And, coming in first place for highest potential for negative consequences was Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics specifically –  machines that can substitute for humans in tasks associated with thinking, multitasking, and fine motor skills. AI has the highest potential for negative effects, and it has the greatest need for better governance.

Human capital. ‘Human’ optional.

Since AI streamlines the research and decision-making process, you could find the jobs of tomorrow much more rewarding and stimulating, even increasing our work quality of life. However, those jobs are not the jobs of today. Today, the most common job in the world is a truck driver. Here in the U.S., we have 3.5 million of them. Self-driving cars render them obsolete.

We face two major concerns, job cuts being the first. We pride ourselves on automation and doing more with less. But doing more with less means using less altogether. AI, like technology, has the potential to put people out of work. From 1997 to 2007, automation was the cause of 86% of manufacturing job losses in the U.S. Adding smarter-than-human talent to the workforce inevitably leads to job cuts at lower levels as jobs get handled more efficiently, effectively, and intelligently, with speed. Conversica, for example, eliminates a company’s need for a sales development team altogether which is terrific for the company but not so great for sales development reps.

The second concern is unfulfilled new jobs. Though we don’t quite know what jobs of the future will look like, we should expect large portions of our workforce at a minimum to be massively displaced, out of work, unequipped, or unskilled to now work and compete in the new economy.

Wealth inequality, another issue of the WEF’s Risk report is a related area of concern. Between 2009-2012, the incomes of the 1% in the US grew more than 31% in just three years. With AI, we should expect that gap to widen as profits increase, costs decrease, and lower and middle classes stagnate. As with past industrial revolutions, we do expect the dust to settle, and that humanity will be better off on the other end. But in the short-term, prepare for an economic recession.

Written while listening to the Life of Pablo. #music