The robots are coming, the robots are coming!


  • Living
  • Sunday, 26 Nov 2017

Stephen Hawking, everyone’s favourite intellectual (they made a movie about him!), has said that right now is perhaps “the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity” thanks to automation.

Yeah, lots of people have cried doom but when it’s Stephen Hawking, you tend to listen.

And what makes this potentially the most dangerous moment? Is it AI run amok? Out of control climate change? An asteroid on a collision course with Earth?

Nope, it’s employment.

“The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.”

Hawking wrote that in an article in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper.

It’s about automation, and I suppose AI, but not in the cold, killer robot way Hollywood has conditioned us to think about AI.

It’s a deadlier, more real AI. The AI that takes your job and does it better and cheaper than you ever could.

A joint Oxford University and Citibank report from 2016 noted that automation could mean 35% of jobs in Britain could be lost, 47% in the United States, and 77% in China. Separate findings say this number could be around 43% in Malaysia.

Yet most people look at automation as something that is happening in the future, and only 13% of Malaysians were in fear of losing their job to automation (Randstad’s Employer Brand Research). But automation is already happening.

Even doing a search about automation taking jobs focuses on the future. But the reality is clear. If your job is routine, it can be automated. And jobs are already being lost. Already have been lost. In fact, since 1991 jobs in employment deemed routine are on the decrease in the United States.

Great! I don’t work in a routine job. Well, even if it’s non-routine, advances in artificial intelligence could make non-routine jobs doable by automated methods too. Don’t be so smug. I’m under no illusion that in 20 years some AI can’t write this column.

But does automation take away jobs and create smarter jobs? Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO, thinks so. His worry is that high skill jobs will be created that won’t be filled. Is this the truth? Possibly. Reality is probably somewhere in the middle of job creation, people having to transition and not being able to, and a loss of employment.

But that’s not what Hawking is really worried about.

“We are living in a world of widening, not diminishing, financial inequality, in which many people can see not just their standard of living, but their ability to earn a living at all, disappearing.”

There is no question we live in a world of widening inequality. The majority of us struggle day to day while the rich get ever richer, and Hawking feels that automation could push that already tense situation to a breaking point.

He cites the election of Donald Trump as US President, and Brexit (Britain’s highly divisive vote to leave the European Union) as evidence that people are being pushed to make extreme choices because they no longer feel that they can succeed adequately in society. What if the inequality gets worse?

Hawking further states that “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.”

Hawking is absolutely right.

But aren’t we missing the point here?

Isn’t technology, ie automation and AI, supposed to make our lives better? Not just empower the already powerful?

In my view, automation and AI taking our menial jobs and leaving only the jobs as Hawking says are the most “caring and creative” shouldn’t be the most dangerous time of human development, it should mean we are on the cusp of something incredible.

We’re on the edge of a time when increasing amounts of labour, labour we need to be done, can be completed by machines. Meaning we’re free to be creative, to research, to solve. AI and automation should be looked on as the means to casting off the yoke of tedious work.

But instead we fear it.

I know this sounds idealistic but consider the reality.

Human development culminates in machines that do all our work and the majority of the world falls into economic despair. That is utter stupidity. But that is where we’re headed.

If Hawking’s fears are not to be realised we need to change how the system works. Change how we live.

Cut the work week to 20 hours. Implement a universal basic income so people are not struggling to live with a lack of work. Encourage people to create and care. Encourage them to be of use to each other.

Yes, yes, yes, I know this all sounds exceedingly tree-hugging.

I’m not an economist or a futurist, and maybe I’m being simple minded when I say this: our technology is supposed to help us, so let’s let automation and AI do that, instead of turning them into the enemy.

And then we can look forward to a time when automation takes our jobs.

Avid writer Jason Godfrey has worked internationally for two decades in fashion and continues to work in dramas, documentaries, and lifestyle programming. Write to him at star2@thestar.com.my.


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