Innovation

How will AI impact jobs? High-powered panel tackles the big question

At AAAI-16, a panel of experts in fields ranging from economics to computer science to philosophy explored how automation will shift the way we need to think about employment.

Panel, left to right: Toby Walsh (moderator), Erik Brynjolfsson, MIT, Moshe Vardi, Rice, Nick Bostrom, Future of Humanity Institute, Oren Etzioni, Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, Max Tegmark, Future of Life Institute

Image: Hope Reese/TechRepublic

Perhaps the most widespread anxiety when it comes to AI is what will happen to our jobs. In light of the 2013 Oxford study, which predicted that 47% of jobs are at risk of becoming automated in the next 20 years, it's a legitimate concern.

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At the conference for the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI-16), in Phoenix, Arizona, a panel of experts gathered to speak to the issue. Headed by Toby Walsh, professor of AI at The University of New South Wales, the multidisciplinary group included the philosopher Nick Bostrom, economist Erik Brynjolfsson, AI researcher Oren Etzioni, and computer scientist Moshe Vardi—with a special appearance by the president of the Future of Life Institute, Max Tegmark, who jumped up on stage when Professor Vardi asked him to help answer a question.

This is not the first time we have seen a radical shift in the labor market—think back to the agricultural and industrial revolutions. (See chart below for how manufacturing output has increased while jobs have decreased.) "Over the last couple of hundred years, tech has destroyed and created jobs," said Walsh.

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Image: Hope Reese/TechRepublic

It's also important to separate AI from "tech." "Technology and AI are not synonymous in any way, shape, or form," said Etzioni. AI, Walsh told TechRepublic, gets a disproportionate amount of the attention.

One major result of previous shifts in the labor market is an uneven distribution of income. Productivity and GDP are going up at record levels, while median income at the 50th percentile has stagnated, said Walsh.

SEE: 6 ways the robot revolution will transform the future of work

But while thinking of the effects of automation today, it's important to keep our fears over lost jobs in context. Brynjolfsson pointed out that although the McKinsey study showed that 60% of jobs had some component automated, only 5% of the jobs were predicted to be completely automated. Guruduth Banavar, vice president of Cognitive Computing at IBM Research, told TechRepublic that many new blue collar jobs could emerge, as well, which will involve the labeling of data. Another way to think about the issue is by thinking of new work that AI will create, and to look to what's possible when people and machines come together.

"Too often, people think of humans as benchmark," said Brynjolfsson. "But [with new technology] we can work together to do something we haven't before."

But whether or not automation will completely replace us at work, it is hard to argue that the huge leap in technology will not have significant consequences in the types of jobs we will have.

"Tech is doing new things," said Walsh, "augmenting and automating mental tasks," instead of physical work.

SEE: How AI and automation could hollow out the US job market

"It's hard to argue that there will be new jobs for humans," said Vardi. "It's a vacuous promise."

So where are the jobs going to be? Alec Ross offered a smart overview in his book The Industries of the Future, highlighting robotics and the importance of fluency in computer science and languages.

"You've got two places to find salvation," Walsh told TechRepublic. "You can either invent the future or go to the most people-focused part of the world. Computers don't understand emotions yet."

Bostrom offered an alternative way to view the issue—by rethinking how society values "work."

"Perhaps," Bostrom said, "we should strive for things outside the economic systems." Tegmark agreed. "Maybe we need to let go of the obsession that we all need jobs."

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Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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