Making sure AI boosts jobs, not destroys them

By Adam Tinworth

06/09/2017 |

The World Economic Forum have published an interesting piece that slides nicely into the theme of this year’s event. It is, in essence, a plea for us to make sure that AI doesn’t end up sucking. And it starts on a reassuring note. Remember those reports about the vast numbers of jobs AI would destroy? Turns out it may not be that bad, according to Stephane Kasriel, CEO, Upwork:

Newer studies look at specific, repetitive tasks instead of whole jobs and find that, for most of us, some fraction of the work we do each day could be done better with AI. But for most jobs, computers aren’t going to replace everything we do.

Which is something of a relief – if bot better than that. I can certainly think of some repetitive tasks that I’d like to hand off to an AI. It is beholden on us to use those AI-derived tools effectively and thus free us up to perform better in our work. In other words, there will be a fast mover advantage in those who are able to adopt them most quickly.

In the longer term, we’ll need to accelerate the evolution of our education system. Many countries are still saddled with a state education system that was fundamentally designed to turn out workers for the industrial age, and which is ill-equipped to prepare children for an AI-mediated digital age. To deal with that will require wholesale changes to the way we teach our kids – and some serious retraining (and recruitment) of teachers. These are issues that can’t be addressed at corporate level, instead requiring some serious though (and money) at a state level. AI is, inherently, political. But it’s also geographic.

AI will lead to geographic inequality

One of the more useful ideas is the suggestion that the emerging jobs fuelled by the AI boom are unlikely to be in the same places that jobs are eroded. We’re likely to see a geographic imbalance in what happens. That’s not a huge surprise to any student of history. The industrial revolution had very much the same impact, transferring the focus of the economy from rural towns to major towns and cities. The shifts are likely to be even bigger this time around, with who geographic regions winning or losing. And that’s something we can start planning for now:

Those who have lost their jobs need retraining and we need an education system that prepares all US children, not just a privileged subset, for the jobs of the future.

We also need to acknowledge the uneven geographic impact of automation and take steps, as businesses and collectively as a society, to increase opportunity in geographic areas that are affected adversely.

And that’s the rub, isn’t it? We know there will be losers as well as winners. Are we content to let that be? Or do we want technology to user in a genuinely better world for all? If we do – that means taking responsibility for the economic and emotional impact on people who are punished by the shift through no fault of their own.

The article ends on a note that neatly sums up what we’re trying to achieve with this year’s event:

We, as a society, need to make the commitment to guide our technologies responsibly and to capitalize on the prosperity we are creating, just as those who came before us did. That way we will ensure that AI technology creates opportunity for all, not just for a lucky few.