Will AI Bless Us With A 15 Hour Work-Week, Or Turn Us Into Paperclips?

20/01/2017 15:54
Francois Lenoir / Reuters

With scaremongers predicting millions of job losses and an increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots, it was interesting to see the results of a recent White House report into AI. Yes, there will be job losses, but the report found that business productivity will rise, which could prompt an increase in average salaries. The benefits for the global workforce should not be ignored.

When you think of the average white-collar office job, it probably doesn't conjure up images of a room full of whizz kids staring at glistening monitors replete with fancy graphs and computer algorithms. Instead you might imagine someone mindlessly pushing paper, or keyboard buttons, in a drab, soulless workspace. Increasingly, computers and artificial intelligence are automating away these routine white collar jobs, leaving employees redundant, or constantly under pressure to work harder or develop new skills.

Technology-driven unemployment is no longer just an ailment of low-income households. No job is safe. There are now AI lawyers, AI accountants, and AI financial advisors. Even AI hedge fund managers. So much money is now being spent on technology that Gartner estimates many companies spend more on marketing technology than they do on actual marketing.

A report last year from Oxford University suggested that up to 50% of jobs are at risk of automation, rising to 85% in developing countries whose economies are more manufacturing based. Surely it's only a matter of time before some aspiring startup tries to invent an artificially intelligent CEO.

It might sound like hyperbole, but some experts consider AI a more pressing issue than climate change. Nick Bostrom - a leading expert from Oxford University - describes the current state of AI as "like small children playing with a bomb". It's not just the implications for the economy and jobs - the rise of superintelligent machines could threaten our existence.

Nick uses the example of a hypothetical paperclip maximiser; an intelligent machine designed to amass as many paperclips as possible. All its energy is devoted to making paper clips, improving itself so that it can acquire more paper clips, and resisting attempts to prevent it reaching its goal. Eventually - based on this logic - it would turn all of Earth, including humans, into paperclips, and then proceed on to the rest of the universe.

Existential paper clip risks aside, the long-term outcome looks rosy. Better technology means higher productivity, and higher productivity means more wealth for society. Some even posit that we are on the verge of entering a post-scarcity economy - an age of veritable abundance - where production is automated to the extent that most goods are cheap or even free. Who wouldn't want that? There's evidence this effect is already present; many countries are battling deflation and most consumer goods have never been cheaper.

The short-term outcome for jobs is less rosy. Many employees, especially "blue collar" workers, have already lost their jobs, and when self-driving trucks and cars start hitting the transport industry - one of the largest employment sectors in the US - things will get ugly.

Middle managers and white collar jobs are not safe either. They will be increasingly replaced by algorithms, and in many cases, these employees will find themselves either unemployed or underemployed in a low-paid service sector jobs. Very few current white collar employees will be able to retrain into the remaining well-paid professions, such as computer programming.

If you think this is far-fetched, bear in mind that Uber - the biggest startup success of recent years - already manages hundreds of thousands of taxi drivers using AI algorithms. These taxi drivers used to be managed by people; dispatchers. Google are also making incredible inroads into AI since their timely 2014 acquisition of DeepMind; last year - AlphaGo - their AI designed to play the board game Go beat the best human player a decade earlier than expected.

The future will be a repeal of the "you are only valuable to society if you work" Protestant work ethic, and an embrace of the fact that pretty soon computers, algorithms, and robots may be able to do much of our work for us. Some countries are already testing Universal Basic Income as a way of mitigating the effects of technological unemployment, and it has support from both the left and the right.

In the 1930s famed economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that - thanks to technology-driven productivity improvements - by the time his grandchildren were adults they would only need to work 15 hours a week. This prophecy may not have materialised within Keynes' optimistic timeline, but let's hope he wasn't too far off!