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September 21, 2014

No Consensus Among Experts on the Net Job Cost of Robotics, Artificial Intelligence

Technology experts and industry executives are almost evenly divided on whether advances in robotics and artificial intelligence will cause a net loss of jobs in the next decade, according to a report from the Pew Research Center and Elon University in North Carolina. Many of those who responded to a canvass on the future of the Internet did agree that the advances in those technologies would have a broad effect on daily life and that the nation’s educational system isn’t up to the challenge of preparing workers for the altered world.

The question on job losses was posed to experts that Pew and Elon University identified, and certain listservs like ones titled the Association of Internet Researchers, Internet Rights and Principles and the American Political Science Association, as well as people on Pew’s Internet Project mailing list. Of the roughly 1,900 people who responded to the question, 48 percent said they thought that by 2025, advances in robotics and artificial intelligence would displace more jobs than they would create, while 52 percent answered that they wouldn’t.

For people who thought these technologies would cut more jobs than they would create, the report says they thought “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 report also says that people who envisioned significant displacement of jobs thought this would result in an “increase in income inequality, a continued hollowing out of the middle class, and even riots, social unrest, and/or the creation of a permanent, unemployable ‘underclass’. ”

The report also outlines several reasons why some surveyed thought there wouldn’t be a net displacement of jobs, including that certain jobs need human to do them and the expectation that technology won’t have changed enough by 2025 to have caused such a big impact on jobs.

“The largest number of these experts used the historical link between technological advancement and employment levels (or lack thereof) to make their case,” the report states.

But there were also shared views among those who expect a net displacement of jobs and those who don’t, according to the report. Among them was the question of preparing the workforce: “A consistent theme among both groups is that our existing social institutions — especially the educational system — are not up to the challenge of preparing workers for the technology- and robotics-centric nature of employment in the future.”

The report also says that a number of experts thought anticipated technological changes would provide for changes in how people view work, pointing out possibilities respondents laid out of more leisure time and a “pushback” resulting in artisanal production.

From the report:

Tony Siesfeld, director of the Monitor Institute, wrote, “I anticipate that there will be a backlash and we’ll see a continued growth of artisanal products and small-scale [efforts], done myself or with a small group of others, that reject robotics and digital technology.”

Aside from the question of job impacts, the report also laid out some themes that emerged from respondents in answering a separate question about how extensively they thought these technologies would be adopted by 2025. Many thought the technologies would pervade “nearly every aspect of daily life,” envisioned impacts on the services industry and advances in self-driving cars, according to the report.

From the report:

Glenn Edens, a director of research in networking, security, and distributed systems within the Computer Science Laboratory at PARC, a Xerox Company, predicted, “It is likely most consumer services (banking, food, retail, etc.) will move to more and more self-service delivery via automated systems.

Another area where a number of experts saw big changes in the future due to advancements in robotics: care for the sick and elderly, according to the report.

From the report:

Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher for Microsoft, responded, “I expect more robotic assistance for the elderly and infirm, because the demands are manageable and the need is increasing.”

  • Rob

    Here’s a cool webcomic on the topic, it references a prior Oxford study that shows half of current US workforce could be automated in the next couple decades: Artificial Intelligence Comics, The Future of Employment: http://artificial-intelligence.com/comic/12

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