Monday 20 November 2017

Artificial intelligence and robots will create jobs, not destroy them

Robots are job enablers. Stock image
Robots are job enablers. Stock image
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

It's the question that divides the world's top technology minds: are we facing mass unemployment in 10 years because of artificial intelligence and smarter robots?

This week, Michael Dell weighed in and he is not a doomsayer on the issue. "The future will be technology plus humans rather than technology instead of humans," he told us at Dell EMC World, the company's annual conference. "I happen to have an optimistic view of the world where tech will enhance human possibility."

Dell is right. Automation - whether through robots or artificial intelligence - is being scripted as a destroyer of human endeavour. But there is very little evidence to suggest that this will be the case. Indeed, much of the more persuasive testimony goes the other way.

"Look around today and you'll agree that we really don't have the bad science fiction future that some people imagined before," said Dell. "What I see is a lot of great things that have come from technology. But again, I'm an optimist."

In Ireland, the advance of technology has coincided with an undeniable fall in unemployment rates.

For most of my young life, an era largely devoid of now-familiar opportunities and platforms, unemployment hovered at between 15pc and 20pc. Since the rise in technology and automation, unemployment has generally been below 10pc.

This could absolutely be a coincidence. But it's one with many spurs. Recent statistics from the European Commission said that when Irish small firms have access to broadband, they outsell and out-trade all other EU counterparts. They create jobs, not destroy them.

As for automation and robots, most evidence suggests that these actually go hand in hand with economies that are getting richer and where people end up with higher-paid jobs.

Is it really possible to imagine elevator operators now? Or telephone switchboard clerks? Or rooms full of typists? These, and dozens of other similar job categories, all employed thousands of people. They became redundant over a 25-year period because of computers or automation. But this did not result in a crisis for the labour market.

"Ah yes, but this time it will be different and much worse," is the response. What is usually meant by this is that this time it's white-collar jobs that are in the firing line. Several studies have concluded that large areas of banking, accounting, legal services and other nominally middle-class jobs (including journalism) may see computer replacements.

But if so, history suggests that the workforce will go on to pursue more profitable, more productive work instead.

It may be that in 15 years time we no longer have bus or taxi drivers. It may also be that clerical work - including that done by lawyers and accountants - will be done by machines and artificial intelligence systems.

And it's certainly the case that there may be much fewer journalists around because of internet distribution systems.

But does it follow that all those people who may find their current jobs replaced - me included - have no hope of ever doing anything else? Are we that pathetic? Do we have no other ideas of what to do or talents to pursue them with?

I don't think so. Machines will always continue to replace some human roles. But productive and profitable human work will never be an endangered activity.

You'd also have to wonder about the mindset of those who automatically reach for the gloomier mass-unemployment narrative. Is it simply pessimism or a fear of change?

I think it's a mixture of both - but in Ireland it is surely misplaced.

One reason is that people are far, far better educated than they once were.

The number of those finishing secondary school in Ireland, as in other countries, is now over 95pc. When I was a kid (eighties and nineties), it was probably less than 80pc. In my parents' time, it was lower again. I distinctly remember our secondary school offering the 'Group Cert' for people who weren't planning to go on beyond third or fourth year. It was a relatively mainstream option back then.

As for third level, Ireland is utterly transformed. The vast majority of Irish kids now go on to third-level education, something most of their grandparents could only dream of.

In short, we have a generation of people who are far more capable of adjusting to changed industrial practices than was the case before.

But even if we accept these arguments, there is a part of us that simply dislikes change. And when it comes to technology, there is always a portion of our brain that grumpily protests that technology has come on enough and it would surely be better if we could just freeze things now. "Why do we need self-driving cars or robots?" you'll hear many say.

Of all the arguments warning of automation, this is the dullest.

When mobile phones first entered the mainstream in Ireland in the 1990s, the most common reaction to them was 'why?'. The received wisdom was to dismiss them as yuppie toys only sought out by uncouth narcissists or exhibitionists. Certainly, most people I knew sneered at them, smugly predicting that they'd never buy one.

This same mindset arose again with the rise of online social platforms, such as Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter.

"Sure, why would I want to see what someone had for breakfast?"

But we all know what happens next: most try it see its value and take to it.

The same will happen with artificial intelligence and robots.

They are job enablers rather than job destroyers.

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