Robots Will Steal Our Jobs, But They’ll Give Us New Ones

At the Dusseldorf airport, robotic valet parking is now reality. You step out of your car. You press a button on a touch screen. And then a machine lifts your car off the ground, moving all three tons of it into a kind of aerial parking bay. Built by a German company called Serva Transport, the system saves you time. It saves garage space, thanks to those carefully arranged parking spots. And it’s a sign of so many things to come.

But the one thing it doesn’t do, says J.P. Gownder, an analyst with the Boston-based tech research firm Forrester, is steal jobs. In fact, it creates them. Before installing the robotic system, the airport already used automatic ticket machines, so the system didn’t replace human cashiers. And now, humans are needed to maintain and repair all those robotic forklifts. “These are not white-collar jobs,” Gownder tells WIRED. “This is the evolution of the repair person. It’s harder to fix a robot than it is to fix a vending machine.”

Gownder uses the Dusseldorf parking garage as a way of showing that the coming revolution in robotics and artificial intelligence may not squeeze the human workforce as much as some pundits have feared. In a widely cited study from 2013, Oxford professors Carl Frey and Michael Osbourne say that machines could replace about 47 percent of our jobs over the next 20 years, but in a new report released today, Gownder takes a more conservative view. Drawing on government employment data and myriad interviews with businesses, academics, and, yes, pundits, Gownder predicts that new automation will cause a net loss of only 9.1 million U.S. jobs by 2025. The horizon of his study is much closer, but his numbers are well under the roughly 70 million jobs that Frey and Osbourne believe to be in danger of vaporization.

“While these technologies are both real and important, and some jobs will disappear because of them, the future of jobs overall isn’t nearly as gloomy as many prognosticators believe,” Gownder writes in the report. “In reality, automation will spur the growth of many new jobs—including some entirely new job categories.”

AI Versus Humanity

Yes, the revolution is coming. Gownder points to a robot at the ALoft hotel in San Francisco delivers towels and toothpaste and other stuff. At Vanguard Plastics in Connecticut, a machine called Baxter is manufacturing goods in ways machines never could in the past. The likes of Google and Amazon are pushing even further into this area with everything from warehouse drones to self-driving cars.

Perhaps more importantly, the giants of the `net are rapidly advancing the art of artificial intelligence, teaching online services to recognize images, understand natural language, and even carry on conversations—the kinds of artificial intelligence that will empower robots to tackle ever-more complex tasks. Using the AI that Google and Facebook use to identify photos on the ‘net, researchers have already built machines that can, says, teach themselves to screw on a bottle cap.

“Today’s technology is different than what we’ve seen in the past,” says Martin Ford, the author of the recent book Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. “The technology is taking on cognitive tasks. We know have machines and algorithms that can, at least in a limited sense, think.”

As this tech evolves, concern is certainly warranted, not only because of how these technologies will affect the workforce but because, some argue, smarter robots could wind up becoming more harmful robots. After seeing the latest artificial intelligence in action, Elon Musk, the founder of electric car company Tesla and the space exploration outfit SpaceX, worries that such AI may turn on humans in more direct ways, so much so that he has donated millions to efforts that seek ways of keeping AI “beneficial to humanity.” But Gownder rightly points out that such technology is still in the early stages of development—and that it still requires much help from humans.

‘Job Transformation, Not Job Replacement’

Humans must build these machines and program them and repair them. But they must also train them. This is true of “deep learning” AI, and it’s true of robots like Baxter. Baxter must be programmed to perform certain tasks, and that involves physically moving his limbs back and forth.

IBM is touting the arrival of Watson, a broad collection of online tools that use artificial intelligence to help diagnose disease, among other things, and so many others are exploring similar work. But whatever the message from IBM, such tools operate alongside humans, not in lieu of them. “Watson is like a robotic colleague,” says Gownder. “It’s job transformation, not job replacement.”

Andrew Moore, the dean of the school of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University who previously worked in AI and robotics at Google, agrees. He says that he has seen no evidence that this technology is stealing jobs—and that, as time goes on, it will likely create an enormous number of jobs.

“Technology does change the mix of jobs. You’re going to see doctors taking more of the role that involves the personal interaction with patients and less of the role of trying to keep huge amounts of evidence in there head. The nurse may become more prestigious than the doctor,” Moore says. “But if you look around, there are also new kinds of creatives roles being produced across the market. There are so many jobs that didn’t exist just a few years ago.”

This is the larger message of Gownder’s report. Robotics and AI will change the way we work, but it won’t necessarily take away our work. Today’s warnings over the rise of AI, he says, are reminiscent of that handwringing over so many other technological advances in the past—and after all these centuries, the workforce is still there.

It should be said, however, that Gownder’s study only looks so far down the road. And as Ford says, even Gownder’s rather conservative estimate—9.1 million jobs lost—is still rather significant. Robotics and AI will continue to progress—at an unprecedented rate—and though Gownder believes the doomsayers have overblown the threat of widespread automation, he too sees reason for concern—and for continued to debate. “The rate of change matters,” Gownder says. “We must keep our eyes open.”

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