The relentless threat of artificial intelligence taking our jobs away3 min read . Updated: 16 Oct 2020, 07:32 AM IST
Work roles that require more compassion than optimization seem less likely to be replaced by AI
I recently came across a quote by the father of Information Theory and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Claude Shannon: “I visualize a time when we will be to robots what dogs are to humans, and I’m rooting for the machines." Shannon did not seem to like human beings much, but this view set off another thought process in my mind. As a technology writer and digital transformation practitioner, the second-most asked question of me is: “Will artificial intelligence (AI) take our jobs, and what should I do to protect mine or my child’s"? (For the most oft- asked query, you will have to read on).
Whether AI will take our jobs or create new ones is one of the greatest debates of the modern world. Every instance when a revolutionary new technology comes in, the same thought fearfully raises its head. It bothered Ned Ludd in 1779 after the invention of the Spinning Jenny, which threatened to take his job as a textile factory apprentice. He went and smashed a machine or two, catalysing a movement against textile technology, and started the Luddite movement. New-age Luddites worried about personal computers and their job-destroying potential. This movement was particularly strident in India, with computers being smashed by worker unions. It turned out that the information technology (IT) revolution created millions of jobs, and catapulted India to its tech-superpower status.
But AI, everyone says, is different, and we need to think about it in a different way. They may be right. This is the first time we have a technology which could potentially replace us, and could perhaps be even more powerful than us, armed with the theoretical potential to turn humans redundant. Turing Award winner Alan Perlis articulates this worry best when he says, “A year spent in artificial intelligence is enough to make one believe in God." Most global institutions, though, are far more sanguine. The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2022, AI will create 133 million new jobs. It also says that from a 30/70 division of labour between machines and humans, the ratio will dramatically shift to 52/48 by 2025. IT consultancy Gartner claims that AI will create two million net new jobs by the same year.
But where will these jobs come from? I have a simple way to think about it: Most of the work we do can be rudimentarily divided into English (or any other language), and arithmetic. English is the creative part (strategy, communication, messaging), while arithmetic is the analytical part (excel sheets, number crunching, financial planning). The arithmetic bit will get taken away by robots first (case in point: Robotic Process Automation) and humans will still own the English bit. However, while even this language part has started getting chipped away by AI, specifically by Deep Learning, Neural Networks and now Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3, AI now creates great music too. Search for AI-written music on YouTube, and you will find lots of it. Microsoft Research and ING teamed up to have AI paint a Rembrandt painting (nextrembrandt.com), and it painted a critic-defying one six centuries after the master died. AI writes poetry and prose, and defeats humans at games that are instinct- and imagination-driven.
Perhaps the best explanation of AI’s impact on jobs is given by Kai Fu Lee, an acclaimed AI investor and practitioner. His famous matrix has optimization-to-strategy on one axis, and no-compassion-to-full-compassion on another. High optimization and low compassion jobs, like telesales, customer support, dishwashing, radiology work and truck driving, will be the first to go, while high compassion jobs like running a company, striking deals, teaching and caring for the elderly will be last. There will also be AI-only jobs, where AI will support humans, or humans will assist AI. Then there will be jobs that will always be for humans, requiring communications skills, empathy, compassion, trust, creativity and reasoning. In fact, Lee has a list of the 10 safest jobs: psychiatry, therapy, medical care, AI-related research and engineering, fiction writing, teaching, criminal law, computer science and engineering, science, and management.
If you think of it, it is more about humans than about AI. Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun puts it best: “I think that artificial intelligence is almost a humanities discipline. It’s really an attempt to understand human intelligence and human cognition."
And that brings me to the question that people ask me most often: “Will AI replace humans?" The short answer is that in some ways, it will. The long answer is for another column.
Jaspreet Bindra is the author of ‘The Tech Whisperer’, and founder of Digital Matters