It’s us versus the robots

In the 2001 movie A.I. there’s a particularly poignant scene where the little robot Haley Joel Osment finds himself in a robot destruction derby of sorts where disgruntled people vent their frustrations.

Now, the scene was meant to elicit sympathy for the little robot who, like Pinocchio, wants to be a real boy. The audience is rooting for this little robot because he is so human.

The other robots about to have their silicon circuitry dashed, if you remember, also appeared very human-like and it was hard not to sympathize with them as well, humans being the nasty brutes we are.

The thing is, though, the future that Stephen Spielberg envisioned in A.I. is a good deal closer than any of us would care to imagine.

A little more than a decade later, two researchers, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, looked at which jobs were at risk of being taken over by A.I. or robots in their seminal paper: The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerization?

It’s not good news. The authors concluded that automation will continue to decimate jobs in the manufacturing sector, administrative support, retail and transportation sectors.

In fact, Frey and Osborne concluded that 47 per cent of jobs were at risk in the coming decades, as this graphic shows.


That was in 2013. The news is worse today, a mere three years later.

As it is, numerous car manufacturers and software providers are looking at introducing driverless cars and trucks. The only thing holding them back is regulatory approval.

Amazon, for example, is opening up stores where there are no clerks, no cash registers. Customers walk in, pick up what they want and walk out. Their movements are tracked and their purchases are made via smartphones.

Soon, fast food outlets will have AI employed in self-serve kiosks and robots will be flipping burgers and making shakes.

Frankly, there are not too many jobs that AI powered robots cannot do. From telemarketing to tax preparation to data entry – all are tasks which robots can perform.

The timeline has been cut to years, not decades.

No one is prepared for any of this. What will people do when nearly 50 per cent of jobs are being performed by robots? Millions upon millions of people will be unemployed.

Automation, to be sure, will create other jobs, but the new jobs won’t replace the ones that have gone missing and not everyone is capable to slotting into the new high-tech jobs.

Some jobs, too, cannot be done by robots – managerial, health care, emergency, arts and entertainment sectors are relatively safe.

This impending automation of so many jobs raises a number of policy issues that are not being addressed.

How will people earn a living? Will half the population be on some kind of welfare? What will this do for morale?

People need work. It gives life purpose. Without work, life will be mean and ugly for a lot of people.

Then there’s the issue of immigration. The West is taking in millions of immigrants every year and there are plans to take in even more as the population ages.

Why? There will be no work for them in the decades ahead and nationals will be competing with immigrants for work remains.

Politicians unfortunately are like old generals – they are fighting wars which are over. The battleground ahead is a good deal more complicated and vexing than anything we have seen before.

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