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Artificial Intelligence and the future of work

  • Published at 10:55 pm May 30th, 2018
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Artificial Intelligence (AI) Bigstock

'In fact, the loss of jobs to automation has already started. Foxconn, the largest producer of consumer electronics in the world, replaced 60,000 workers with robots in 2016'

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is no longer science fiction; it is already stealing our jobs and depressing the wage growth.

The dreaded “technological singularity,” when machine “intelligence” overtakes human capability, is already upon us. In the words of Jack Ma, founder of the global tech giant Alibaba Group, there will be massive unemployment across the globe in the future leading to wars, and “the next 30 years is (sic) going to be painful.”

In fact, the loss of jobs to automation has already started. Foxconn, the largest producer of consumer electronics in the world, replaced 60,000 workers with robots in 2016.

As global shipping and warehousing operations around the world are fast dumping human workers for robots, airborne commercial drones are being increasingly used for surveillance purposes as well as for delivering pizza, while robot chefs are on sale and have over 2,000 meals on their menu.

Humans need not apply

In fact, several researches in recent years have raised alarm over the prospect of many occupations becoming fully automated over the course of the next decade. While the Bank of England has estimated about 15 million jobs to be at risk in Britain alone, researchers at Oxford University have identified 700 occupations that could start shedding jobs imminently because of the wider application of AI.

Some of these occupations cover administrative, clerical, and production jobs, while others include the work of telemarketers and cashiers, data entry keyers and library technicians, tax preparers and insurance underwriters, etc.

It is also claimed that drivers of any kind of vehicle -- taxi drivers, bus drivers, truck drivers, delivery drivers, etc -- might become obsolete in the not-so-distant future. 

Autonomous vehicles are already driving hundreds of thousands of miles around American, European, and Asian cities and freeways without human intervention, and several studies show they are fast becoming less accident prone than any human behind the wheel.

In fact, many automakers -- like Ford and BMW -- plan to launch their first commercial self-driven cars by 2020-22.

Why is it different now?

Although society has been able to absorb scientific changes many times in the past and technology has created several new jobs in their place, the challenge this time is said to be somewhat different.

As AI capabilities grow, even occupations that require making judgment calls like studying legal documents, preparing tax returns, or making medical diagnoses could soon be automated. Thus, even high level jobs of auditors and lawyers may gradually diminish.

The important thing to understand here is that jobs involving high-volume, repeatable tasks, or those backed by plenty of data may be taken up by robots in the more immediate future, but those involving “novel” problem-solving, analyses, and creative solutions may continue to be a human preserve.

Thus, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku says that in the blue-collared segment, repetitive jobs in the automobile and textile industries are in danger, but non-repetitive jobs such as of construction workers, gardeners, police, etc are likely to survive. 

Even so-called white collared jobs of middlemen, book-keepers, agents, and tellers may be wiped out, while jobs involving creativity and leadership may remain inviolable.

However, noted futurist and author Martin Ford believes that as technology rapidly climbs the skills ladder, the future of even more professional and non- manufacturing jobs, such as those done by teachers, journalists, financial analysts, radiologists would also start falling prey to this technological change. The enormity of this rapid transformation in human life seems to have only just started to dawn upon global leaders and economists.

In fact, it was former US President Barack Obama who expressed his concern in an interview to Wired magazine in 2016: “If we make good decisions now we can build the runways so that by the time AI is fully incorporated into our economic life, people welcome it as opposed to reject it.”

But we can’t assume that and if we continue on current trends, you are going to continue to see these populist movements -- both on the left and the right -- that believe that technologies, globalization, AI … (are) threatening to the day-to-day lives of ordinary people and the values they cherish.”

Marx’s utopia

Curiously, the exponents of the Third Industrial Revolution led by AI speak of a utopia that one of the worst critics of capitalism Karl Marx once dreamt of. Writing in Das Capital, the philosopher had envisioned people to be ultimately freed from their repetitive and boring industrial tasks, which he said engendered a feeling of “alienation” (entrfrengdum) among them as they were unable to see their personal contribution or distinctiveness in the final product.

With AI clearing up these assembly line jobs, it is believed workers can now move on to more creative and engaging tasks that would help alleviate their sense of alienation. It is also argued that the wealth created by AI, if properly distributed in society, could remove the stigma of unemployment and be seen as freedom (which Marx advocated) to enable humans take on several, creative pursuits at the same time.

In fact, US entrepreneur and thinker Kevin Surace echoes Marx when he says: “Jobs aren’t good. They are a necessary evil and in fact they are a form of human bondage”. Similarly, Rudy Karsan differentiates work from jobs.

To facilitate social acceptability for AI-created lay-offs, the concept of universal basic income is suddenly gaining traction among the industrial and intellectual elite in order to promote more centralized economies, as mooted by erstwhile communist and fascist states.

Notwithstanding the philosophical spin that technology wizards might give to jobs and the future of work, rising unemployment among youth in the world could spell disaster for global peace and security at this critical time in human history.

With eight individuals having as much wealth as half of humanity, and prospects of a global economic recovery remaining grim for the coming decade, the news of AI downsizing the labor force is likely to give more fillip to communist and fascist totalitarian systems, as capitalism seems to have created a new crisis for itself. 


Adil Rasheed is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defense and Strategic Analyses (IDSA) based in New Delhi since August 2016. This article previously appeared in Al Arabiya News