Ellen R. Wald
January 16, 2019
Workplace automation, including the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, is on the rise. (AFP)
A prominent Chinese venture capitalist, Kai-Fu Lee, has been proselytizing for the advancement of artificial intelligence for some time. He is the chief executive of an influential investment firm called Sinovation Ventures based in Beijing that specializes in artificial intelligence, also known as AI, and as such he has an interest in promoting the idea that it will change our world. However, he may end up scaring us more than astonishing us. You see, Lee now claims that up to 40 percent of jobs will be “displaceable” because of AI within 15 to 25 years.
This past weekend, Lee appeared on a well-known American news television show to discuss AI, whereupon he stunned the reporter with his claim. Of course, anything Lee says about AI must be taken with some skepticism, because he has major financial interests tied to the success of the concept. It is quite possible that, in a few years, we will realize that AI was more hype than reality, more marketing than product. However, it is undeniable that improved automation has already cut jobs and ended careers, and that it will continue to do so. It is vital that we prepare for further changes to our global economy and our society.
For 20 years, we have witnessed the loss of careers and professions to computers, the internet and ingenious programmers. In much of the world, travel agents no longer exist because we book flights and hotels online. Banks employ many fewer tellers because ATMs are so much more convenient. When you call a business for customer service, you often get a computer instead of a person to assist you. These were jobs for real people that have been automated.
Now we should brace for the next round of automated jobs. Some say that, eventually, truck drivers, taxi drivers and bus drivers will be obsolete. Many technologists believe that autonomous vehicles are just around the corner. While that may make city streets safer — or scarier if that car computer goes haywire — it would mean millions of unemployed professional drivers globally.
The only thing stopping restaurants from installing computers to replace waiters is that we like the personal service. However, fast food restaurants are adopting cheaper computers over hiring people. Maybe nice restaurants will keep the personal touch, but it is hard for a restaurant proprietor to deny the cost savings of new technology. What will the former waiters do when restaurants are no longer hiring?
When drivers and waiters lose jobs, families suffer and the economy adjusts. What happens if 40 percent of jobs go away? What happens if there is a major disruption of employment? What happens if a society’s wealthy and powerful find themselves displaced too?
Already, we have seen the transformation of the financial investment sector. Today, more equities are traded by algorithms in advanced software than by humans on the famous stock trading floors of Wall Street. When the stock market plummeted last month and the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped over 15 percent in three weeks, most analysts blamed automated trading. Human traders could not keep up. If regulators do not intervene, is there really reason at all to employ humans at hedge funds and mutual funds?
Top attorneys have also already experienced automation, but the situation can get much worse. Fifteen years ago, large legal firms in New York, London and Hong Kong hired hundreds of associates to do the boring work of “document review” and legal research, but much of that can be automated today. After all, it is much easier and cheaper to scan and search a million pages than hire a dozen young lawyers to review them.
It is undeniable that improved automation has already cut jobs and ended careers, and that it will continue to do so.
Ellen R. Wald
Even physicians will face replacement. Earlier this decade, a robot debuted that had the potential to replace anesthesiologists in many procedures. The doctors revolted, and eventually Johnson & Johnson cancelled the project. However, the technology is there. When robots are cheaper, how long will hospitals wait before insisting on using them?
Of course, most of us would feel safer with a human anesthesiologist if we were the patient. The same could be said for human attorneys if it is our case at trial. However, the costs of medicine and legal work are so high that they have become ripe for technological disruption. Most likely, there will always be an anesthesiologist overseeing the operation, maybe from many miles away. There will always be a human attorney guiding the document review, but he will be working with a computer instead of a team of young colleagues. Even the automated trading systems are supposed to be assessed by professional traders and programmers. Still, those are real doctors, lawyers and traders who lose their jobs.
If anything comes of AI, it will mean a greater ability for software to take on tasks once done by human workers, even the most prestigious workers. If Lee is right, we are in for an unprecedented disruption. We cannot all become computer programmers (and AI would make many computer jobs obsolete too). Maybe we will become a world of loafers relying on government handouts or maybe we will return to agrarian work just to keep busy. Maybe disruption and a restless population will lead to social upheaval or political evolution. Maybe we will be hungry. Maybe we will be bored. But, if Lee is right, we will never be the same.
Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy