"I love driving for Uber, but they want to replace me with driverless cars. I don’t know what will happen to me and everyone else, but there could be a revolution.”
A conversation with my Uber driver last week unearthed a new fear that few of the world’s business leaders seem to have grasped – the real impact that artificial intelligence (AI) and automation could have on jobs and society.
Uber is just one company that has stated its intention to automate its business. The ride-hailing firm is testing autonomous cars, but chief executive Travis Kalanick said last year in an interview with Business Insider that it would not wipe out jobs because “you’re still going to need a human-driven parallel, or hybrid”.
This encounter with my Uber driver brought to mind the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting earlier in the month, where the global elite gathered in the mountain resort of Davos. The so-called “fourth industrial revolution” was again a big topic, but the rhetoric had moved on from the scary doomsday scenarios of last year to how AI and automation won’t be as bad as previously thought.
In a CNBC panel, major business leaders discussed the topic. Jonas Prising, chief executive of Manpower, was upbeat.
“With automation... certainly there are going to be jobs that will be displaced, but most jobs will be impacted by technology in terms of specific tasks within the job that will change,” Prising told CNBC. He pointed towards a survey of 18,000 employers in 43 different countries across the world conducted by Manpower earlier this month, which found 82 per cent of employers expect to maintain or increase staff levels as a result of automation.
I’m not one for scare tactics but I think business leaders need to get more realistic about the future of jobs. We’ve seen machines and automation before. People retrained and new jobs were created. This is the same logic that chief executives are applying to the situation today.
But there has never been anything with the power of AI, particularly the advancements made by technology giants. Even Google co-founder Sergey Brin said at Davos that he’s “surprised” by the pace of AI – and the US search giant is one of the most advanced in this area.
With the recent rise in populism, in part driven by fear over jobs, business leaders need to be much more frank, and the tech industry seems to be on the right path. Salesforce chief executive Marc Benioff warned of “digital refugees” that could be created because of AI, while also supporting the idea of a universal basic income. Microsoft boss Satya Nadella also talked about this as a good policy.
Tech leaders arguably need to be taking a leading role in the debate because it’s their technology that could be responsible for large-scale worker displacement. But the broader business community needs to step up to reality – the AI future will be unlike anything we’ve ever seen, and it’s now time to start thinking about how to realistically deal with that.