The advances in machine learning, automation, and robotics that we have witnessed over the last few years keeps bringing back the old “man versus machine” debate that is probably as old as technology itself—so old that it’s not even as gender-neutral as it should be. Some professions evolved due to technological advances while others disappeared or became peripheral in modern society.
A mere Google search for “AI job loss” over the last month would reveal titles such as “AI Will Put 10 Million Jobs at High Risk,” “Robots are Coming for Our Jobs Sooner than You Think,” “AI and Robots Could Threaten Your Career Within 5 Years,” and “When AI Spells Exit.”
Man is being slowly but steadily elbowed out of the labour field by machine. A contrivance has recently been produced by which even cold chisels can be forged without man having more to do with the work than superintend. The beauty of a machine is that it never tires, never strikes against long hours, or for larger wages, keeps over, and is always on the spot when wanted. Once more, in another specialty where the skilled eye and the delicate touch of the human hand were considered indispensable, the artisan no longer holds the field.
That pessimistic description does not feel much different from what luminaries such as physicist Stephen Hawking and businessman Elon Musk have been saying for a few years now:
The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining. This in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world. The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive. (Stephen Hawking, The Guardian)
There certainly will be job disruption. Because what’s going to happen is robots will be able to do everything better than us. I mean all of us (…) Transport will be one of the first to go fully autonomous. But when I say everything—the robots will be able to do everything, bar nothing. (Elon Musk, speaking to the National Governors Association earlier this year)
Of course, you’ll see the opposite view by many others, such as IBM‘s Ginni Rometty and Facebook‘s Mark Zuckerberg, pretty much making the argument that it shouldn’t be man versus machine, but should be man with machine.
Some people call this artificial intelligence, but the reality is this technology will enhance us. So instead of artificial intelligence, I think we’ll augment our intelligence. (Ginni Rometty, IBM)
If you’re arguing against AI, then you’re arguing against safer cars and being able to better diagnose people when they’re sick. I just don’t see how in good conscience some people can do that. So I’m just much more optimistic on this in general than I think a lot of folks are. (Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook)
The curse and blessing of this social media-dominated era is that, no matter what you believe, supporting arguments by pretty credible sources are just a Google search away from you. Keep googling about “AI” or “job losses” and you’ll find no shortage of reasonable and strong forecasts by futurologists depicting rosy and doomsday scenarios with equal confidence.
One way to make sense of all this contradictory information is to interpret them using author Philip E. Tetlock‘s skeptical view claiming that the average expert is roughly as accurate in predicting the future as a dart-throwing chimpanzee, as discussed in his book, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Predication. This is not to dismiss the intelligence or honesty of any of those forecasters; all of the ones cited above are reasonable, intelligent, and successful thinkers and doers. But considering the level of disagreement between their predictions, they can’t all be right on this theme—unless a comic-book style crisis on infinite earths is about to become a reality.
Since it’s not possible to rely on experts in this case, the wise call is to be prepared and hedge our bets by making personal decisions that will help us regardless of what the future has in store. We may or may not lose our jobs several times over the next few years, but we should make peace with the fact that it’s one possible outcome of what we are observing today.
From now on, the transitions like the ones from gatherer to farmer to urban-dweller to global citizen won’t take generations to materialize. They will happen several times during a lifetime, and adapting ourselves to an always-learning, always-adapting mindset will be crucial for our survival. In fact, AI may play an important role as a prosthetic amplification of our learning ability in this brave and new world. Some say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but nobody said anything about a dog powered by AI.
This article originally appeared in Biznology.