The Robots Took Er Jerbs!


Prompted by a new study predicting that as many as half of all American jobs might be lost to computers and robots in the next few decades, Derek Thompson stops to consider how our view of automation is changing:

We might be on the edge of a breakthrough moment in robotics and artificial intelligence. Although the past 30 years have hollowed out the middle, high- and low-skill jobs have actually increased, as if protected from the invading armies of robots by their own moats. Higher-skill workers have been protected by a kind of social-intelligence moat. Computers are historically good at executing routines, but they’re bad at finding patterns, communicating with people, and making decisions, which is what managers are paid to do. This is why some people think managers are, for the moment, one of the largest categories immune to the rushing wave of AI.

Meanwhile, lower-skill workers have been protected by the Moravec moat. Hans Moravec was a futurist who pointed out that machine technology mimicked a savant infant: Machines could do long math equations instantly and beat anybody in chess, but they can’t answer a simple question or walk up a flight of stairs. As a result, menial work done by people without much education (like home health care workers, or fast-food attendants) have been spared, too.

But perhaps we’ve hit an inflection point.

As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee pointed out in their book Race Against the Machine (and in their new book The Second Machine Age), robots are finally crossing these moats by moving and thinking like people. Amazon has bought robots to work its warehouses. Narrative Science can write earnings summaries that are indistinguishable from wire reports. We can say to our phones I’m lost, help and our phones can tell us how to get home.

Kenneth Anderson is skeptical that the coming advances in AI will destroy human jobs without creating new ones:

The “this time is different” view seems to me overstated – as so often the case with AI, as Gary Marcus has noted. One should never rule out paradigm shifting advances, but so far as I can tell, the conceptual pathways as laid down for AI today are not going to lead – even over the long-run – to what sci-fi has already given us in imagination.  Siri is not “Her” – as even Siri herself noted in a recent Tweet.  For the future we can foresee, in the short-to-medium term, we’ll be more likely to have machines that (as ever) extend, but do not replace, human capabilities; in other cases, human capabilities will extend the machines.  The foreseeable future, I suspect, remains the process (long underway) of tag-teaming humans and machines.  Which is to say (mostly), same as it ever was.

The significant new job categories (I speculate) run toward skilled manual labor of a new kind. The “maker movement”; new US manufacturing trends toward highly automated, but still human-run and staffed factories; new high technology, but still human-controlled, energy exploitation such as fracking; complex and crucial robotic machines under the supervision of nurses whose whole new skill sets put them in a new job category we might call nursing technologist – these are the areas of work that point the way forward.

Drum zeroes in on why people would rather not think about the potential AI future:

Conservatives don’t like the idea that it almost inevitably will require a much more redistributive society. Liberals don’t like the idea that it might make a lot of standard lefty social programs obsolete. As a liberal believer, I’ll put myself in the latter camp. I’m not willing to give up on the standard liberal social program because (a) I might be wrong about AI, (b) if I’m not, we’re still going to need variations on these programs, and (c) we still have to deal with the transition period anyway. I assume conservative believers might feel roughly the same way.