‘Rise of the machines’, ‘Robots are taking over’ and ‘AI is here to replace humans’ – don’t these sound like science fiction movie titles, which bring to mind images of human-like robots with burning eyes and hands, made of steel? And if not inspired by ‘Terminator’ movies, maybe you picture the ‘old-school looking’ robots like ‘Chappie’, who fight alongside humans with more sophisticated, but evil-tempered AI machines like ‘Ex Machina’? One way or the other, I believe that we still think about robots as imaginative concepts of the future, although they are already our present… Indeed, the above titles are taken from different newspaper articles, which discuss the very real impact of automation that we are experiencing today.
Although steal figures with burning eyes might be our primary mental representation of robots, the actual ones are much less dramatic in looks, but highly impactful nevertheless. Self-serve machines in shops, 3D printers and driverless cars are the robots of today that do the jobs people used to do, and do so more efficiently. So robots are indeed taking over jobs, and many contemplate a jobless future. For example, according to the World Economic Forum estimates, if robots replace all cashiers and retail salespersons in the US, 7.5 million people will lose their jobs. If When driverless technology will become largely available, drivers and pilots will join the unemployed. Based on McKinsey research, the Time ‘probability calculator’ estimates that there is an 85% probability for drivers and a 72% probability for pilots that their work will be done by robots.
Naturally, the same risk of replacement by automation is evident in manufacturing. Although president Trump is relentlessly scapegoating global trade, Mexico and China for a decline in US manufacturing jobs, it seems much more evident that its major cause is automation and better technology. A Ball State University study indicates that ‘almost 88 percent of job losses in manufacturing in recent years can be attributable to productivity growth, and the long-term changes to manufacturing employment are mostly linked to the productivity of American factories.’
So, already today machines are capable of doing many well-defined activities, and the array of robotic capabilities is still far from reaching its limits. For example, Richard and Daniel Susskind, authors of the book ‘The Future of Professions’, predict that even such mainstream professions as doctors, lawyers and accountants might be replaced by robots. Well, one may argue that as the job landscape changes, new jobs will emerge. Moreover, we will still need people who build, maintain and upgrade all these machines, which work instead of us, right? That would be a very comforting thought indeed… Yet, let me finish with something cited in a World Economic Forum article as a million-dollar question from Sam Harris’ Ted Talk: ‘imagine we hit upon a design of superintelligent AI… this machine would be the perfect labor-saving device. It can design the machine that can build the machine that can do any physical work, powered by sunlight, more or less for the cost of raw materials. So we’re talking about the end of human drudgery. We’re also talking about the end of most intellectual work… So what would apes like ourselves do in this circumstance?’