Japanese company's AI hire signals coming wins for robots. What about the people?

Robots are filling jobs around the globe, but experts believe labor markets for human workers may grow as well. 

Jack Plunkett/Feature Photo Service for IBM
A Rice University PhD student has his heart and respiratory rates measured by a prototype Multi-Purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant (MERA), as an IBM Research Staff Member observes during a demonstration in Austin, Texas. IBM and Rice University have collaborated to create a Watson-enabled robot designed to aid the elderly and caregivers.

The robots are coming, the robots are coming! But will they be colonizers, liberators, or partners?

Thirty-four Japanese employees are out of a job, thanks to Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance’s hire of IBM computer system Watson. Not content with manufacturing jobs, machines continue their march into labor markets from fast food, to farming, to medicine. But don’t cash out your 401k yet. Many experts still see a role for human labor in the future, and everyone benefits from a smarter Siri.

The workers of Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance will be the latest in a string of humans to be bested by IBM’s electronic brain after Watson-based software takes over their responsibilities calculating insurance payouts. With its ability to sort through masses of data in a short amount of time, the program defeated Jeopardy-champion Ken Jennings, among others, on a national stage in its 2011 debut, before going on to best doctors at some diagnoses. Watson even invents recipes during its free time.

Barely a year goes by without a robot demonstrating superiority at new tasks or branching out into new areas. Google developed DeepMind, which learned how to play Atari in 2015, beat a top ranking Go player in early 2016, and partnered with the NHS to assist in medical diagnoses months later. 

With a pared down human workforce, Fukoku Mutual life expects to save $1.2 million a year in salaries, and boost productivity by 30 percent. Under these economic pressures, how can humans be cost effective? Andrew Puzder, chief executive officer of CKE Restaurants, wrote in an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal that while better technology helps to keep down overhead costs, government mandates are pushing costs up:

In 2015, 14 cities and states approved $15 minimum wages – double the current federal minimum. Additionally, four states, 20 cities and one county now have mandatory paid-sick-leave laws generally requiring a paid week of time off each year per covered employee. And then there’s the Affordable Care Act, which further raises employer costs.

And CKE, the parent company for Carl's Jr., Hardee's, Green Burrito, and Red Burrito, isn't the only one in quick-service restaurants exploring the world of robots. Faced with the spread of the Fight for 15 movement, McDonald’s plans to install self-service kiosks, and California pizza chain Zume Pizza already employs robot chefs. The outlook appears bleak outside of the food industry, too. The World Economic Forum predicts a net loss of 5.1 million jobs to the rise of AI and robots internationally by 2020.

But some economic analysts say not to give up hope just yet. The spread of machines creates jobs, too. Assistant professor of economics Michael Jones wrote in The Washington Post last year that only listening to doomsayers misses the point:

Because of the rapid pace of technological improvements, capital depreciates at a faster rate. Companies, or owners of capital, must therefore spend a larger share of profits to repair technology or replace obsolete technology. 

Simply put, more robots mean more machines to program, install, fix, and upgrade. The question is, will jobs gained outweigh jobs lost?

Experts are divided. A Pew Research Center canvas of almost 1,900 technology builders and analysts found that 52 percent of respondents expect technology as a whole to create more jobs than it replaces between now and 2025.

They express a variety of reasons for optimism in the report. Economist Michael Kende argued that technology will create, not destroy: "[S]omeone will have to code and build the new tools, which will also likely lead to a new wave of innovations and jobs." Journalist John Markoff pointed to past examples of surprising new fields: "If we [go] back 15 years, who would have thought that 'search engine optimization' would be a significant job category?"

Psychologist Pamela Rutledge said that some tasks are uniquely human: "An app can dial Mom's number and even send flowers, but an app can't do that most human of all things: emotionally connect with her." Others suspect that AI’s rate of development may be overstated, or that economic and legal constraints will ensure continued human employment.

When thinking about the future, the past can serve as a guide. "Here's a startling fact: in the 45 years since the introduction of the automated teller machine, those vending machines that dispense cash, the number of human bank tellers employed in the United States has roughly doubled," David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said at the beginning of his recent TED talk, "Will automation take away all our jobs?"

He goes on to flesh out two mechanisms that have helped humans keep up with technology so far. The first is that most jobs require the performance of varied tasks, and as some become automated the remainder grow more important. As he explained, "ATMs could do certain cash-handling tasks faster and better than tellers, but that didn't make tellers superfluous. It increased the importance of their problem-solving skills and their relationships with customers."

The second is that people are hungry for growth. "The average worker in 2015 wanting to attain the average living standard in 1915 could do so by working just 17 weeks a year, one third of the time," Professor Autor said. It's our desire for time-saving appliances like washing machines and refrigerators, as well as our lust for gadgets, apps, and Ubers that drives Americans to work 47 hours per week.

Because that’s what robots are, a new kind of gadget just as capable of lending a helping hand as taking a job. AI has been making our lives easier behind the scenes for years, every time Google image search matches words to pictures, or Siri turns sound waves into commands.

The benefits aren’t limited to smartphone efficiency either. The chatbot legal service DoNotPay successfully overturned 160,000 parking tickets in London and New York for free, saving motorists $4 million in fees.

With Watson and Deep Mind practicing medicine, and just about everybody developing self-driving cars, AI developers are aiming for a healthier, safer future. Those 34 Japanese employees may be looking for new jobs today, but they could wake up feeling grateful for a better tomorrow. 

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