Will machines really displace us at work?

As we are working on new Machine Learning content due to be launched in summer 2018, we explore here some of the challenges associated with an increase in automation in the workplace. As our mission is to prepare young people for the real world, we think it’s essential to discuss both the risks and opportunities involved in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning that young people will face in their future work lives.

“This is not a race against the machines. If we race against them, we lose. This is a race with the machines. You’ll be paid in the future based on how well you work with robots. Ninety percent of your coworkers will be unseen machines.” Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired magazine.

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(Source https://www.scoro.com/blog/how-ai-is-changing-the-way-we-work/)

Amongst widespread fears that machines will replace a proportion of existing jobs it’s incredibly important to remember, as Kelly states; people benefit both materially and spiritually from connectedness and complexity. All this is for the good: by understanding what technology wants and by helping it to achieve it’s aims humans will further their own ends too.

One of the big challenges we currently face is how frequently technology is portrayed as a huge threat, rather than focusing on the endless positive opportunities it presents. AI will arrive; driverless cars and trucks are happening; so are ground-breaking developments in medical science; big data is already transforming industries and the service sector, 3D manufacturing is upon us. Our preconception with autonomy is arguably one of the major issues skewing the way we look at the future.

Stats from the Infoys Consulting report on Amplifying Human Potential suggests the following about the future of machines in the workplace:

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Using machines to augment productivity began in the industrial revolution. The increase in productivity this generated grew the number of jobs in the 19th century beyond imagination. Here we can draw comparison with the digital revolution; the jobs it is creating are different and unknown. Fear of the unknown shouldn’t necessarily be negative. It’s not the loss of existing jobs that should be the concern, more the ability to up-skill to understand new demands quickly enough. Some examples of the skills crucial for the modern economy are outlined here:

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Challenges

Of course concerns about the future of machines cannot be brushed off; there are complex challenges which will present themselves. Some of the challenges associated with the automated digitisation of the economy include;  

  • Governments being able to keep up with the rate of change and adopting relevant policy quickly enough
  • The skills gap increasing the socio economic gap
  • The unknown risks associated with autonomous technology which can outsmart humans
  • Reliability and manipulation of information
  • Ability to improve infrastructure at a rate quick enough to keep up with growing population and demands for fast connectivity
  • The responsible tracking and storage of data handed over to technology companies
  • Online security and the rise of hacking and cybercrime

In his paper “Technology for the Many: A Public Policy Platform for a Better, Fairer Future” Chris Yiu  explores how as well as creating new categories of economic activity, digital technologies have also opened up the darker side of human nature. In order for the positive outcomes of artificial intelligence to be fully realised responsible management is paramount. Of course, there are questions on who chooses the technologies, how their spread comes about through markets and who benefits from them. This is a huge obstacle facing governments when determining how to draft regulation.  

Being diligent about known unknowns makes sense but there is always going to be unknown unknowns. For example, another learning from the industrial revolution; the scientists creating CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbons; the highly stable compounds that were used as propellants in spray cans and in refrigeration units didn’t know of the consequences to the ozone layer. That science wasn’t available; we can draw similar comparisons with the creation of digital products. Innovation is always going to create new problems but if we don’t innovate because of the potential risks we would never solve the big problems facing humanity.

Awareness of the challenges and risks posed by Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence are crucial to managing the responsible development of new technologies. As well as this, it is crucial that awareness of social responsibility is taught to those who are learning the skills to create such advancements.

As a small tech education non-profit, we believe have a role to play not only enabling our educators and students with skills and knowledge about technology, but showing students how they can put them to use in a way which positively benefits their communities and wider society.

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