Are the robots coming for our jobs?
That has been a perennial worry ever since the initial technological advances of the first industrial revolution. But there are concerns that this time is different — and that artificial intelligence (AI) requires government intervention.
Some estimates suggest that 40 per cent of jobs are at high risk of being automated over the next decade. With unemployment already on the rise in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a mounting risk of popular backlash against technology.
It’s especially important in these challenging times that we do not succumb to such pressures.
Artificial intelligence is a key pillar in the fourth industrial revolution. Past revolutions transformed the way we live. From new agricultural methods to steam power and the adoption of manufacturing, these advances helped raise our society from the default state of humanity — lives that, for the vast majority, were poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Of course, it’s always possible that this latest technologic shift could be radically different to those that came before. But I doubt it.
In a new report for the Adam Smith Institute, entitled These are the droids you’re looking for, I review the evidence — and emerge with optimistic conclusions.
The first trap AI interventionists fall into is failing to learn the lessons of the past.
Some experts fall foul of the age-old Luddite fallacy: they focus only on the losses and mistakenly assume that the economy is static, rather than growing to develop new opportunities.
But historically, technological advancements always have delivered greater prosperity for the masses — eventually. While some jobs are lost initially, new fields and industries emerge meaning that new jobs are created elsewhere. These are typically better, more fulfilling, higher paid, and provide more leisure time to workers.
The technologies we invent have enabled us to stop tedious practices and replace jobs that would be considered shameful these days, like child chimney sweeps. No one would realistically try to argue now that such jobs should be protected.
More measured doom-mongers generally concede that technology change has been beneficial in the past, but argue that AI is unique. They worry that computers will imminently be so much better than us at literally everything that even the new jobs will not go to humans.
This fear is not borne out by current AI capabilities and overstates our ability to implement complex technology. Sceptics are too pessimistic about the speed of human ingenuity and too optimistic about AI.
So while we should of course monitor AI’s progress and track the impact, there is no cause for immediate alarm. Instead of trying to limit new technology, we should focus our attention on those who are displaced by AI, helping them to get back into work quickly, so that they too can benefit fully from a more prosperous society.
We have plenty of time to prepare for the worst-case scenarios, bolstering our welfare and taxation systems to protect the most vulnerable. Indeed, the report recommends that the government experiments with policies to tackle sustained joblessness, like conducting trials of a “negative income tax” and investing in lifelong learning vouchers to help people reskill.
If robots are going to take some of our jobs, they will do so in the same way as electric light took jobs from candle makers: overall, our lives will be infinitely better for it. Rather than heavy-handed intervention, we should create an environment in which AI can flourish, living standards improve, and the vulnerable are protected — all while boosting the post-pandemic economic recovery.
Let’s not let the doom-mongers keep us all in the dark.
Main image credit: Getty