Will an AI robot take my job?

17 October 2017

Interview with

Simon Beard, Centre for the study of Existential Risk

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Are we at risk from being put out of work from an artificially intelligent machine? Chris Smith was fairly confident that podcast presenters were safe, but Simon Beard from the Centre for study of Existential Risk had other ideas.

Simon - You say that it won’t take your job any time soon. Actually, these things are very hard to predict because of the non-linearity. Yes, you couldn’t plug Alexa into the decks and she’d run the programme but it’s not impossible that the next algorithm that comes out will be a whole step change better and you will get artificial radio presenters way before we know it.

It’s very hard to know what’s going to happen in the short term. It’s not so hard to know what’s going to happen in the long term just because we’ve got a lot of years of data here about how machines, and computers, and artificial intelligence have worked and you do get quite predictable long term patterns of improvement.

In the long term, the answer to this question on one level does seem like it’s yes. It’s hard to imagine a job which you could not get an algorithm to do at least as well as a person and more cheaply, or probably much better than a person could and more cheaply as well.

However, that’s only the first level. That’s the kind of rational economics view of employment and we know that it doesn’t work like that. Actually, people spend a lot of money on things that aren’t about doing a job better, or doing it more cheaply. People’s habits are based on ethical values; they’re based on social interactions; they’ve based on status, on appearance, on how things look to other people. There are very good reasons to think that human beings will have an edge from many, many of those things for a long time to come.

People care about people; we like to interact with people even if it’s not so good sometimes as interacting with a machine - it’s not so efficient. At the moment, we’re more used to it being frustrating to interact with machines but as I say, in the long run, that is likely to change. But we still like people; we still like to have handmade goods even if they’re not so well made we pay more for them.

So, on that basis, I find it hard to see a situation in which people will be written out of the job market, in which there will be no jobs for people, but the reason why people employ other people will be different. It won’t just be about getting the job done as cheaply as possible; we won’t be employing people in sweatshops or on the minimum wage. There will be no reason to do that. The reason for employing people are going to be social; they’re going to be value based; they’re going to be status based.

Chris - Do you not think there’s going to be a problem then? Because, if what you’re saying is true, and there are very few jobs that would not be predated by artificial intelligence, not necessarily tomorrow but in the future, does that not add up to a recipe for a kind of mass panic and people being out of jobs, and a meltdown in the fabric of society which, for thousands of years, has been based around being paid for industry?

Peter - Well so we have luckily seen ourselves go through a variety of this kind of step change where the reason people get employed to do things, and the way they get employed to do things changes dramatically. It changed during the industrial revolution, it changed during the first wave of automation, and the ending of the industrial revolution in developed countries, and these are definitely stressful, difficult transitions. They do link to increases in violence and political dissatisfaction but, on the other hand, we are an amazingly adaptive species. They don’t produce social meltdown. Sometimes they produce very local revolution but, actually, more often they don’t.

Chris - Do we need some legislation in place though? Because are we not sleepwalking a bit into a situation where suddenly we might find things changing very, very quickly and we have not got any laws in place, or anything to make sure that companies do do right by their workers?

Peter - Absolutely we do. But the legislation we need needs to be forward looking, not past looking. One of the examples that I use is that if you consider the industrial revolution, it was the same set of technological changes that produced very egalitarian societies like Sweden and Japan, and also very unequal societies like the USA and China.

Government regulation has an awful lot to do with that. But, a big part of it is we can’t legislate on the basis of just keeping hold of what we’ve got at the moment. Not only because that will be ineffective, but because the wrong sort of legislation is likely to lead to bad outcomes. We have to look at what is coming and what we want to get out of that. So that’s going to mean keeping hold of working protection but refocusing it. We’re not so worried about working protection in terms of industrial accident, we should be now much more worried about worker’s rights in terms of social and emotional strain because that’s what people are going to be employed to do. It’s going to be providing these social and emotional services so the kind of exploitation you’re going to see is going to be exploitation of the people’s emotional resilience, and the social connectedness, and so on. That’s the sort of thing we need to protect against going forward.

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