Will a robot take your job?

Experts are divided, but humans can still decide what will happen

Ina Fassbender/Reuters
A service robot is photographed at the Institute for Computer Science at the University of Bonn in Germany July 3. The humanoid robots are being developed by the University of Bonn's 'NimbRo' team and Igus GmbH.

Would you be relieved and liberated if you could hand your work over to a robot or other form of artificial intelligence? Or would you be alarmed or even wonder what your life was all about?

With robots and other forms of artificial intelligence taking over more and more tasks, these questions become less theoretical and more immediate.

Pew Research Center’s Internet Project recently asked nearly 1,900 leaders in technological and other fields how artificial intelligence (AI) will affect employment in 2025, just 11 years from now. The group split almost evenly on the question of whether robots or other AI will create or destroy jobs for humans.

But they agreed more uniformly that today’s educational system doesn’t adequately prepare young people for the jobs of the future. Students today, said one respondent, are receiving a “Henry Ford education for a Mark Zuckerberg economy.”

It’s become obvious that low-skill manufacturing jobs can be automated, with perhaps a single worker overseeing the work of rows of robot arms rather than human hands. But the automation revolution is chewing its way into white-collar jobs as well. As language recognition programs become more refined, for example, it’s now a rarity to reach a live person by phone rather than a simulated voice at a bank or other business. In fact, by 2025, “Live, human salespeople, nurses, doctors, actors will be symbols of luxury,” one expert predicts. Only the well-to-do will be able to afford “the silk of human interaction as opposed to the polyester of simulated human contact.”

Jobs that demand uniquely human attributes – creativity, critical-thinking skills, empathy – will be the hardest for a synthetic substitute to replace. While AI can outperform humans at specific tasks, such as playing a game of chess, AI is unable to truly think broadly in a human fashion. That problem remains unsolved and lacks even a clear path to being discovered.

Some Pew respondents also worry that the middle class could be carved out of society altogether. A highly educated and technologically sophisticated elite would do very well while the masses struggled; an ever-sharper line would be drawn between haves and have-nots. Even lower-level service jobs might not be immune: Self-driving vehicles, for example, could do away with a huge number of drivers who spend their days transporting people and goods.

But others note that technological advances have always destroyed jobs (where have all the blacksmiths gone?) while creating new ones: Who could have predicted 15 years ago that “search engine optimization” or “Web marketing” would be major job categories?

Science fiction writers have long enjoyed imagining malicious forms of future AI that could destroy humankind or AI that rises to a level of consciousness that makes humans obsolete and irrelevant. Some thinkers about technology such as physicist Stephen Hawking and inventor Elon Musk worry about “dangerous AI” as well.

But a much more likely scenario was expressed by this Pew respondent: “Although technological advancement often seems to take on a mind of its own, humans are in control of the political, social, and economic systems that will ultimately determine whether the coming wave of technological change has a positive or negative impact on jobs and employment.”

In other words, humans created technology, and humans still can determine how it will shape humanity’s future.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.