Here Come The Robots. Where Does That Leave Us?
The future is coming faster than we thought. For decades now we’ve laughed about the future as envisioned by early sci fi writers and graphic artists. Oh ha ha, it’s not like that at all, right? Well, we’re not laughing anymore. In fact, the more dystopian among them may have the last laugh as artificial intelligence and their robot minions displace humans. Whether we like it or not, the 21st century is morphing into a scifi prediction. Those of us who are part of the tech teams making it happen are no doubt pumped. Those of us who are going to lose our jobs not so much.
One Oxford University study tidily summed it up: “Advanced robots are gaining enhanced senses and dexterity, allowing them to perform a broader scope of manual tasks. This is likely to change the nature of work across industries and occupations.”
Add one Robot to the Assembly Line, Subtract Six Jobs
Trump campaigned on the promise that he was bringing manufacturing back to America. What he didn’t tell his job-starved blue state supporters is that when factories come back, they are not hiring humans. The robots have many of those jobs locked in.
Every new robot added to an American factory in recent decades reduced employment in the surrounding area by 6.2 workers, according to a new study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The new study by economists at MIT and Boston University carefully controlled for other factors that might impact these jobs such as offshoring and imports from China and Mexico. The robot effect persisted. What’s more, as reported in BuzzFeed, they estimated that for every one robot per thousand workers in a given area of the country, the employment rate went down by .2-.3 percentage points, and wages fell by between .25 and .5 percent.
What’s even scarier is that the economists focused only on fully autonomous machines that don’t require human operators and can be programmed to perform tasks — such as welding, assembling, handling materials, or packaging. They didn’t include machines that require humans to push buttons.
“We see negative effects of robots on essentially all occupations with the exception of managers,” state economists Daron Acemoglu of MIT and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University in the study. “Predictably, the major categories experiencing substantial declines are routine manual occupations, blue-collar workers, operators and assembly workers, and machinists and transport workers.”
It’s Not Just Us – Robots Are Bent On World Domination
Estimates from the International Federation of Robotics, reported in BuzzFeed, estimate that there are currently between 1.5 and 1.75 million industrial robots in operation. That number that could increase to 4 to 6 million by 2025, with the majority in the auto industry and electronics industry.
Employers could feasibly swap out machines, using existing technology, for humans in 50 percent of today’s jobs, says another analysis, this one from McKinsey, reported in Recode.
That’s not just low-paying work but plenty of white-collar employment as well, and that works out to $16 trillion in wages worldwide and $2.7 trillion in the U.S.
Interestingly, the U.S., the birthplace of so much artificial intelligence innovation, does not lead the world in robots. South Korea, a country of 50 million, has the world’s highest robot density, according to the Globalist. As of 2015, 531 robots were on the job per 10,000 workers. That was 74% higher than second-ranked Japan with 305 robots per 10,000 workers and 76% higher than Germany which has 301 robots per 10,000 workers. And it is three times higher than the U.S. with 176 robots per 10,000 workers.
Although China has only 49 robots per 10,000 workers, its leadership has signaled that robots will loom larger in the country’s economic future. China also is reportedly making major investments to expand its role in producing robots for the new world order.
AI Advances the Robot Revolution
Vasant Dhar is a data scientist and professor at NYU with a PhD in philosophy who pioneered the use of machine learning for predictive modeling on Wall Street across proprietary systematic trading, risk management, and customer and salesforce management. He is considered an expert on artificial intelligence and was interviewed by NPR on this topic.
He sees the acceleration in AI emerging through two developments. One is the new capacity for machines to learn for themselves. “In previous generations of AI studies, scientists had to spoon feed computers the distinctions and reasoning they felt were central to the operation of intelligence. Over the last decade or two, researchers have pushed successfully at the frontiers of Machine Learning,” he said.
Machine learning, as defined by analytics firm SAS, is a method of data analysis that automates analytical model building. Using algorithms that learn from data, machine learning allows computers to find hidden insights without being explicitly programmed where to look.
With machine learning, as technology is exposed to new data it can independently adapt. The machines learn from previous computations to produce reliable, repeatable decisions and results. Recommendations on Netflix and Amazon are examples of machine learning already in use and the self-driving car is headed in that direction.
This all involves something called deep learning. Deep learning can create electronic “neural networks” that can mimic different basic operations occurring in real webs of neurons. The “deep” part comes from stacking up the operations of the electronic neural networks. Lower level networks do simple operations (like finding edges in an image) and then transmit their results up to networks higher in the stack. In the end, hopefully, these integrated networks allow a computer to perform tasks like facial recognition.
Like a Surgeon or An Accountant – AI Ready to Swallow More Jobs
“It is becoming more common for computers to perform tasks better than the best humans can,” said NYU’s Vasant Dhar. And when AI takes over human jobs there is a multiplier effect that reverberates throughout the economy.
Recently Paysa reported on how Uber’s driverless trucks could wipe well-paid truck driver jobs. That would also affect people in jobs that support the truck driving industry and many towns that benefit from the truck drivers’ routes.
But the reality is that AI is devouring white-collar jobs, too, and everyone from accountants to surgeons will be affected.
Consider the robot surgeon Da Vinci. It makes incisions with machine precision. So, the incisions are smaller, less invasive and less traumatic. There is less loss of blood and less recovery time needed. And shorter hospital stays. For now, doctors still operate the machinery remotely via a console that resembles a video game controller. But soon they may not be needed at all.
During the recent Super Bowl, two commercials during the first half encouraged viewers to trust computers to do their taxes, the first from H&R Block with its new partner Watson, and the second from TurboTax with its friendly talking tax bot. Most tax return decisions are based on massive amounts of historical data on which the machine learns to call on to make its decisions.
No job may be completely safe from the AI takeover.
Bill Gates Says Robots Should Pay Taxes
The less people work the less taxes people pay. If robots take over human jobs, that means fewer people will be working, which in turn means fewer people will be paying taxes. Taxes pay for basic infrastructure like roads, bridges, schools, teachers, fire departments and police departments. So how do we continue to fund our society?
Make those job-stealing robots pay their fair share of income taxes, says Bill Gates.
“Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, Social Security tax, all those things,” said Gates in an interview with Quartz and widely reported in the media. “If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”
Gates says that once automation takes over jobs that humans used to do, that should free up people to do work that lets society “do a better job of reaching out to the elderly, having smaller class sizes, helping kids with special needs.” All of which, Gates says, require human levels of empathy and currently suffer from a shortage of people who can fill those roles.
“But you can’t just give up that income tax, because that’s part of how you’ve been funding that level of human workers,” Gates said.
The tax money could come from the savings companies get from not having to pay and support human workers, or it could come from a tax on the robot companies themselves, said Gates.
Elon Musk Wants to Turn You into a Cyborg To Give the Robots Competition
If you can’t beat’em, join’em. That’s how Tesla founder Elon Musk wants to tackle the threat to humans posed by AI. Musk recently announced the founding of a new company he’s named Neuralink. Through Neuralink, Musk plans to merge humans and machines through a technology called neural lace.
As explained by Mashable, “Elon Musk wants people to willingly implant electrodes in their brains so they might upload and download thoughts, and he’s building a company to make it happen.”
Musk’s neural lace is a tightly coiled bit of mesh stuffed inside a tiny needle. When the needle is inserted into the skull and the mesh is injected, the lace unfurls. It connects with your brain’s neurons and monitors electrical brain activity, theoretically giving you the ability to, for example, translate your thoughts instantly into text on your devices because typing is so last century. Over time, the lace becomes a part of your brain, electronic particles weaving with the biological.
“Musk is afraid of artificial intelligence. He’s tried to get his Silicon Valley cohorts to pump the brakes on rushing to develop AI without extensive consideration for what such development means for future humans. He’s afraid that increased artificial intelligence means that robots will inevitably outpace the thinking capacity of humans,” Mashable’s Colin Daileda said.
He believes that speeding up human’s ability to transmit information will make them more competitive with robots. And if not, we can always take advantage of his other company SpaceX and head to Mars.
Robots Taking Your Job? Get Paid Anyway
What will happen to all of us once robots make us redundant? Why not let us just chill and paint watercolors, do tai chi in the park or engage in other creative pursuits? This could be good, some in the tech community are thinking. Robot labor will create an economic surplus which the humans could receive to just kick back and not work. This concept is called U.B.I. for Universal Basic Income.
“Imagine the government sending each adult about $1,000 a month, about enough to cover housing, food, health care and other basic needs for many Americans. U.B.I. would be aimed at easing the dislocation caused by technological progress, but it would also be bigger than that,” the New York Times recently wrote.
“As computers perform more of our work, we’d all be free to become artists, scholars, entrepreneurs or otherwise engage our passions in a society no longer centered on the drudgery of daily labor.”
We’d be retired before we ever had careers. Of course, the plan still needs a lot of work. In the Bay Area or New York, $1000 a month wouldn’t go very far.
The tech incubator Y Combinator, is funding research into U.B.I. They’ll be looking at whether we humans need work to feel a sense of purpose or is our work ethic a byproduct of our current capitalist culture that we can ditch like a pair of worn out running shoes?
When Robots Go Rogue
Hal 2000 of 2001 A Space Odyssey powers a spaceship while also secretly trying to kill its astronaut crew. The machines in The Matrix enslave humans. Should we be worried? Maybe.
NYU’s Dhar warns about the unpredictability of this strange new robotic world, “Once such machines are integrated into the fabric of our lives, we may not be able to “turn them off” if they start behaving in a way we don’t understand!”
AI doesn’t even need to go rogue for us to find ourselves grappling with new difficult issues. Legal issues, for example. What are the legal ramifications for the actions of a robot that designs itself and learns to act on its own? Many ethical and legal decisions remain to be addressed. But the robots are here and they will only increase in number in the next decade. So we better get thinking.