Will rapid advances in robots and AI displace work and jobs or create them?


One of the most important – and uncertain – questions we face is whether rapid technological developments in domains such as robotics, artificial intelligence and telepresence will lead to substantial unemployment.

Pew Internet has just launched a very interesting report AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs which delves into this topic by drawing on almost 2,000 experts who responded to the question:

The economic impact of robotic advances and AI — Self-driving cars, intelligent digital agents that can act for you, and robots are advancing rapidly. Will networked, automated, artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?

They distilled the responses into positive and negative perspectives as well as points of agreement:

The view from those who expect AI and robotics to have a positive or neutral impact on jobs by 2025

JP Rangaswami, chief scientist for Salesforce.com, offered a number of reasons for his belief that automation will not be a net displacer of jobs in the next decade: “The effects will be different in different economies (which themselves may look different from today’s political boundaries). Driven by revolutions in education and in technology, the very nature of work will have changed radically—but only in economies that have chosen to invest in education, technology, and related infrastructure. Some classes of jobs will be handed over to the ‘immigrants’ of AI and Robotics, but more will have been generated in creative and curating activities as demand for their services grows exponentially while barriers to entry continue to fall. For many classes of jobs, robots will continue to be poor labor substitutes.”

The main arguments given by those supporting a positive outlook were:

Argument #1: Throughout history, technology has been a job creator—not a job destroyer

Argument #2: Advances in technology create new jobs and industries even as they displace some of the older ones

Argument #3: There are certain jobs that only humans have the capacity to do

Argument #4: The technology will not advance enough in the next decade to substantially impact the job market

Argument #5: Our social, legal, and regulatory structures will minimize the impact on employment

The view from those who expect AI and robotics to displace more jobs than they create by 2025

An equally large group of experts takes a diametrically opposed view of technology’s impact on employment. In their reading of history, job displacement as a result of technological advancement is clearly in evidence today, and can only be expected to get worse as automation comes to the white-collar world.

The negative view was based on two major points:

Argument #1: Displacement of workers from automation is already happening—and about to get much worse

Argument #2: The consequences for income inequality will be profound

Points of agreement

There were however a number of points of broad agreement:

Point: The educational system is doing a poor job of preparing the next generation of workers

Point: The concept of “work” may change significantly in the coming decade

Possibility #1: We will experience less drudgery and more leisure time

Possibility #2: It will free us from the industrial age notion of what a “job” is

Possibility #3: We will see a return to uniquely “human” forms of production

Point: Technology is not destiny … we control the future we will inhabit

I have addressed almost all of these points in my writing and speaking, including on expanding and replacing human work, the humanization of work, the replacement of jobs, broader views of the future of work, and many of the issues in our future of work framework (now available as a video).

One of the greatest dangers, as important as the potential for dramatic rises in unemployment, are the powerful forces of polarization in work. The risk of an increasing social divide between the haves and have-nots of rewarding work are immense.

Yet the final point made is the most important: we can shape the future, and make the choices that are more likely to lead to a world in which work is human, rewarding, and taps the true potential of many more people than it does today.

It is absolutely critical that all of us, and certainly all business and government leaders, understand the scope of the issues at stake. That understanding must help us act to shape better futures for all us in a dramatically changing world of work.