What to expect when the robots come for our jobs

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At the end of 2014, Stanford announced it was going to play host to a 100-year-long study, proposed by computer scientist Eric Horvitz, on the effects of artificial intelligence on society and how those effects "will ripple through every aspect of how people work, live and play." The study, nicknamed AI100, is mostly carried out by having a panel of experts produce a report every five years.  On Thursday the first report came out, produced by 17 people, most of whom are professors in various AI-related disciplines, with a couple from companies like Microsoft of Google X.


The experts break down the different effects of AI into eight different broad categories, ranging from transport to entertainment. In honor of labor day, let's focus on the area they dub "Employment and Workplace." The first point they make is that people are afraid of their robotic workplace competition. It's fine when a Roomba does the vacuuming for you but it's not ideal when license plate scanners mean your employment as a highway toll taker is made obsolete.

To be successful, AI innovations will need to overcome understandable human fears of being marginalized. AI will likely replace tasks rather than jobs in the near term, and will also create new kinds of jobs. But the new jobs that will emerge are harder to imagine in advance than the existing jobs that will likely be lost.

Upside: New jobs you can't imagine are coming! Downside: It's hard to do skills training for imaginary jobs.

But if those imaginary jobs don't become a reality, we're going to need to the idea of paying humans just for being alive, a.k.a. "universal basic income":

In the short run, education, re-training, and inventing new goods and services may mitigate these effects. Longer term, the current social safety net may need to evolve into better social services for everyone, such as healthcare and education, or a guaranteed basic income.

AI could also mean humans don't need to be gathered together in huge offices anymore.

AI may also influence the size and location of the workforce. Many organizations and institutions are large because they perform functions that can be scaled only by adding human labor.


The experts conclude that it's "not too soon for social debate on how the economic fruits of AI technologies should be shared. As children in traditional societies support their aging parents, perhaps our artificially intelligent 'children' should support us, the 'parents' of their intelligence."

Exciting as it is that our (metaphorically) artificially intelligent kids are going to (metaphorically) call every week and spoon feed us in our dotage, there's little in the report that deals with what changes are already occurring. The authors almost blithely note that "in the not too distant future, a diverse array of job-holders, from radiologists to truck drivers to gardeners, may be affected" while mentioning nowhere that service workers at Lowesaccountants at Walmart, and many different workers in the fast food industry are already being affected.


The report isn't making bad suggestions. There ought to be a discussion of artificial intelligence and social safety nets and how to adjust for artificial intelligence's impact on how people work (or don't), but this report, and especially the labor portion, feels like an abstract kind of futurism without much content. Instead of that, the way to focus in on what's happening in AI might be to focus on the very real future that's unfolding around us, whether it means disingenuous rhetorical use of AI to stoke fear or what sort of changes AI is already having elsewhere in the supply chain of work.

Maybe they'll get to that in the next report. See you for that in five years, and happy Labor Day (but remember, the real labor day is in May)!


Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at ethan.chiel@fusion.net