Title: The AI Revolution will be Like the Industrial Revolution
Communication and information technology has advanced rapidly in the last decade. From computers and cell phones to what some feel may be the intelligence that will someday destroy humans. That is artificial intelligence or AI. AI simulates human intelligence with machines—mainly computer systems. AI’s applications include expert systems, speech recognition and machine vision. When AI is combined with robotics, the result is machines that can do the work that humans currently do. This may be good for business but bad for workers since businesses may be able to operate without workers in the future leaving many people with no method of generating income and putting the future of their survival in jeopardy. However, most communications and information technology experts say that AI will definitely change the way work is performed in the future, there will still always be a need for humans and that AI will create new opportunities and methods of generating income. This is the optimistic way of viewing the future of AI and the workforce, but there is also a pessimistic aspect too.
Because of advancements in computer and robotic technology, computers are better at both physical and cognitive tasks. They can now perform activities such as speech and face recognition, interpreting texts, analyzing medical data, driving cars and several other tasks as well as humans. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine issued a report titled, “Information and the U.S. Workforce: Where Are We and Where Do We Go from Here?” that offers examples of the type of advancements AI systems have made such as “defeat[ing] humans at games such as chess, . . . answering a growing range of factual questions, and serving as intelligent software agents” (National Academies 2). These functions may not sound so threatening, but AI is set up so that computers learn by themselves through analyzing the data that they have—conceivably all the known information that has ever been recorded—making connections, and coming up with new information that they alone can act on. If they are attached to robotics, then they can act upon this new intelligence. However, that is a worry for the future about how advanced AI could possibly become.
The more immediate concern is that AI and robotics are already eliminating some jobs. For instance, Alexis and Siri have eliminated the need for customer service agents who answer questions for customers. They have also eliminated the need for researchers who look for information that people need to know. When AI is manufactured into cars, the cars can drive themselves and that eliminates the need for any driving occupations. The National Academies explain that AI uses algorithms that help to identify patterns in historic data that can be used to infer information for future use (National Academies 2). This has been used to predict the response patients will have to medical treatment for instance. With the generation of online data, AI will continue to become more advanced and be able to function in many more ways that will mean less need for humans to perform jobs. Yet, as frightening as it may seem for workers who fear losing their jobs to automation, recent studies show that AI is not taking hold as rapidly as some believe. Robotics Business Review cites a recent study of U.S.-based manufacturers that found three-quarters of them had not introduced AI-related jobs to their businesses. Only about 20 percent have re-evaluated roles, levels and pay scales to attract workers with AI skills (Robotics Business Review). Of course, this will likely change rapidly in the near future.
AI can be compared to the thinking portion of a human being and robotics to the acting portion. For instance, the brain tells a worker to use the forklift he is driving to pick up a crate and move it to another area of the warehouse. With AI and robotics, the computer reasons that the box should be moved to another part of the warehouse. It then tells the forklift to pick up the box and gives it the coordinates so that the forklift can drive over to the area of the warehouse where the box should go. This sort of activity could go on forever presumably without a human present if the AI part of the system is well programmed and all the mechanics are functioning properly. Such a scenario illustrates not only the positive aspects of AI and robotics, but also the negative aspects.
Some of the positive aspects of AI is that work is done more efficiently. There are not two or three humans who must pass on instructions as to where the box should be located and who and how it should be moved to that place, so the instructions do not get reinterpreted as they go from one person to another. The potential for a human worker being injured moving the box is non-existent. The machines will not become fatigued and need a break. They will not demand payment for their work. They will not go on strike, shut down the warehouse, picket and demand higher wages and better working conditions. The owner of the warehouse, once s/he owns the machines, will have virtually free labor. S/he will only have to pay for the electricity that charges these machines. For business owners, such a scenario is ideal.
The negative aspects of that scenario though affect mostly the worker, and, of course, the greater part of society in general. If there is no more need for workers, then many people will be out of jobs and incomes to support themselves and their families. Since there are far more workers than business owners, only a small minority will have money generated by the products or services they provide with their AI and robotic systems. If there are few people working and generating incomes, there will be a lot less need for businesses to create products and services, so really, the business owner will not be in a good position either. The economy will not be in good shape because if the majority of people are put out of work because machines have taken their jobs, then there will be no economy—or at least not one as we now know it. A report by the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) says, “Machines will be able to carry out more of the tasks done by humans, complement the work that humans do, and even perform some tasks that go beyond what humans can do. As a result, some occupations will decline, others will grow, and many more will change” (McKinsey Global Institute 1). When MGI says that some jobs will decline, they mean that some jobs will become non-existent. One could compare it to the decline of some types of artisan crafts during the Industrial Revolution. As machines were invented that did the jobs of these artisans, did the jobs more efficiently and consistently, and did the work in less time, those jobs disappeared.
While many people worry that the AI Revolution will also eliminate jobs, and perhaps, indirectly humans, there is much to be hopeful about. MGI says, “Deployment of AI and automation technologies can do much to lift the global economy and increase global prosperity, at a time when aging and falling birth rates are acting as a drag on growth” (McKinsey Global Institute 2). Productivity has been in decline for a number of years now. MGI believes that AI is the answer to that decline, and an increase in productivity will help the global economy. However, there will be disruptions in the way the workforce is currently comprised. MGI predicts that about half of all activities currently carried out by the workforce, which does not mean jobs, will become automated. Most of them will be physical activities that humans currently do, which is about half the work that is currently being done in all economic sectors. The work that will be the hardest for AI to replace is management functions and interacting with other humans. The good news is that only about five percent of the current positions can be fully automated, so there will still be a need for humans in the workforce (McKinsey Global Institute 3-4). Still, there will be significant decline in many jobs in which automation can replace workers in the next decade.
The pace of replacing human workers with automated workers depends on a number of factors, however. First, humans have to be accepting of automation, and that means the business owners themselves. Many people in the work force began their careers before computers even became small enough to sit on a desk. Society made the adjustment, but there is still a significant enough number of people who hold the technology at arms’ length out of fear or mistrust of it. Those people who own businesses will have to be persuaded that automation is the best thing for their businesses. Once they retire from the work force, automation will become the status quo, but then there are other factors that will affect the pace of it too. For instance, the cost of automation will not be cheap. In the long run, it may be less expensive to automate than pay humans to perform work imperfectly for years, but that is gradual expense whereas purchasing an AI system would be one big expense, which many business owners may not have the capital to make. The supply, quality and quantity of the labor force is another consideration, but perhaps the biggest obstacle influence will be society’s acceptance of an automated work force. Some societies will be more open to it than others, and some countries have businesses that will be better able to automate (McKinsey Global Institute 4). This will then cause inequality in the rates of automation, which will result in more inequality in income and wealth.
Most AI experts insist that AI will provide new opportunities for humans to work. A.T. Kearney says, “There are various schools of thought, ranging from the apocalyptic (the robots will take all of our jobs) to the reverential (humans will be freed up to realize their higher potential as boring, mundane, and dangerous tasks become the preserve of the machines). The truth will most likely fall somewhere in between” (A.T. Kearney). It may be difficult to imagine what sort of new types of work will be generated by AI, but just like in the Industrial Revolution, jobs were lost, but new and better jobs were created. Most of those jobs had not been conceived of before the machines that caused the Industrial Revolution came along and freed up humans to invent new ways to generate income. Many jobs can currently be automated, but they are the jobs that require little intelligence and lots of physical work because that is the level of advancement that AI has currently reached. When it advances beyond that level, which it is currently in the process of doing, then more higher level workers will be replaced by AI systems. In the meantime, jobs will become less redundant and work more valuable. Workers will have to be able to learn throughout their careers rather than have others depend upon them for their knowledge and skills because others will be able to access AI for that. In other words, humans will have to become smarter. Workers who can adapt will find their jobs easier to do and experience less burnout because their jobs will require constant adaptation.
The best thing for workers and owners to do is to take a deep breath and accept the fact that society, the economy, the workforce and life in general is in a stage of change right now. The intelligence that has been generated by the advent of communications and information technology has brought about another revolution that humans living right now are in the midst of and there is no way to change that. Humans must adapt to it if they are to survive. Robotics Business Review offers several recommendation for businesses during the transition such as creating teams that can help the entire staff transform the business to one that operates using AI. That team should first evaluate the staff’s level of readiness, and then create objectives for the staff to meet so that the transformation can take place smoothly (Robotics Business Review). Of course, businesses are not seen as the entity that will suffer from advancements to AI.
Workers are the ones who have the most to lose especially if they are untrained and unskilled workers However, the American work forces appears to be, for the most part, optimistic about the AI Revolution. Robotics Business Review says that 86 percent of workers surveyed saw AI as mostly positive and mentioned its benefits (Robotics Business Review). This is good news because it is the workers who will have to adjust the most and that could lose the most in the AI Revolution. Yet, young people are going to college at greater rates than ever, and they are pursuing jobs in the fields of communication and information that will help them to adjust, and even look forward to the world of work as it will look in the future when AI is the norm. Humans will have to work with AI, and if they do, history will look back on the AI Revolution just as it does on the Industrial Revolution, as an overall positive occurrence even if it did mean that humans were put through a time of change and adaptation. In the end, the world advanced and life was made better for many people.
A.T. Kearney. "AI and Its Impact on the Workforce." n.d. A.T. Kearney. Web. 5 December 2019. < https://www.atkearney.com/digi... >.
McKinsey Global Institute. AI, automation, and the future of work: Ten things to solve for. Executive Briefing. Brussels; San Francisco; Amsterdam; Shanghai: McKinsey Global Institute, 2018. Web. 5 December 2019. < https://www.mckinsey.com/featu... >.
National Academies. Information and the U.S. Workforce: Where Are We and Where Do We Go from Here? Future of Technology and Work. Washington D.C.: National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, 2017. Web. 5 December 2019. < https://blogs.edweek.org/edwee... >.
Robotics Business Review. "New Research Shows How AI Will Impact the Workforce." 6 August 2019. Robotics Business Review. Web. 5 December 2019. < https://www.roboticsbusinessre... >.