The robots and the future of your job and your life

WASHINGTON, D.C.
August 6, 2014 7:00am
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•  New report says robotics will permeate work and personal lives by 2025

•  A dystopian or a utopian future?


Robots and many forms of artificial intelligence will take on much more prominent roles in people’s work and personal lives between now and 2025, according to a new report issued Wednesday by the Pew Research Center and Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center.

The report is a compilation of opinions and predictions shared by nearly 1,900 respondents about the evolution of emerging networked technologies and their likely impact on daily life.

As the economic impact of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) such as self-driving cars, intelligent digital agents that can act for you, and robots advances rapidly, the experts were asked if this fast-moving trend will have displaced more jobs than it creates by 2025.

“The results were an even split, with 52 percent envisioning a future in which robots and digital agents do not displace more jobs than they create and 48 percent saying they will displace significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers,” says Aaron Smith, a senior researcher with Pew and co-author of the report. “A number of the respondents warned that this aspect of technical evolution will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable and the possibility of breakdowns in the social order.”

Lee Rainie, a co-author of the report and director of the Pew Research Internet Project, says, “Among the overall trends predicted by the experts are the accelerating displacement of work that can be done more efficiently and cost-effectively by robots and/or AI; creation of new types of work requiring uniquely human capabilities; a transformation of labor, especially in the fields of transportation, fast food and medicine; freedom from day-to-day drudgery that allows people to define work in a more positive and socially beneficial way; a shrinking of the middle class and expansion of the ranks of the unemployed; and concerns over an education system that is not adequately preparing people for the work of the future.”

Janna Anderson, director of the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University, is a third co-author of the report. She says survey respondents urged that leaders, especially those in business, education and politics, must respond more quickly to the change.

“Employment needs are evolving quickly as emerging technologies alter the ways in which work is done. These experts say there’s not enough being done right now to adjust to 21st century needs so people are equipped with the skills that will allow them to contribute to new fields and assist in moving established organizations forward to meet new challenges,” Ms. Anderson says.

The written elaborations of respondents yielded more than 250 pages of opinions

Here’s a sampling of some of the viewpoints of experts:

• Mark Nall, a program manager for NASA, says, “Unlike previous disruptions such as when farming machinery displaced farm workers but created factory jobs making the machines, robotics and AI are different. Due to their versatility and growing capabilities, not just a few economic sectors will be affected, but whole swaths will be. This is already being seen now in areas from robocalls to lights-out manufacturing. Economic efficiency will be the driver. The social consequence is that good-paying jobs will be increasingly scarce.”

• Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher for Microsoft, says new work will emerge: “Technology will continue to disrupt jobs, but more jobs seem likely to be created. When the world population was a few hundred million people there were hundreds of millions of jobs. Although there have always been unemployed people, when we reached a few billion people there were billions of jobs. There is no shortage of things that need to be done and that will not change.”

• JP Rangaswami, chief scientist for Salesforce.com, says, “The very nature of work will have changed radically by 2025, but only in economies that have chosen to invest in education, technology and related infrastructure. Some classes of jobs will be handed over to the ‘immigrants’ of AI and robotics, but more will have been generated in creative and curating activities as demand for their services grows exponentially.”

• Jerry Michalski, founder of REX, the Relationship Economy eXpedition, says, “Automation is Voldemort: the terrifying force nobody is willing to name… The race between automation and human work is won by automation, and as long as we need fiat currency to pay the rent/mortgage humans will fall out of the system in droves as this shift takes place.”

Some of those who predicted that a push for optimal economics and efficiency of labor would lead to a threatening displacement of human workers expressed specific concerns.

• Stowe Boyd, lead researcher at GigaOM Research, says, “As just one aspect of the rise of robots and AI, widespread use of autonomous cars and trucks will be the immediate end of taxi drivers and truck drivers; truck driver is the number-one occupation for men in the U.S. Just as importantly, autonomous cars will radically decrease car ownership, which will impact the automotive industry. Perhaps 70 percent of cars in urban areas would go away. Autonomous robots and systems could impact up to 50 percent of jobs, according to recent analysis by Frey and Osborne at Oxford, leaving only jobs that require the 'application of heuristics' or creativity… An increasing proportion of the world's population will be outside of the world of work — either living on the dole, or benefiting from the dramatically decreased costs of goods to eke out a subsistence lifestyle. The central question of 2025 will be: What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the 'bot-based economy?”

• Howard Rheingold, a pioneering Internet sociologist and self-employed writer, consultant and educator, warns, “Only the best-educated humans will compete with machines. And education systems in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world are still sitting students in rows and columns, teaching them to keep quiet and memorize what is told them, preparing them for life in a 20th century factory.”

• Bryan Alexander, senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, wrote, “The education system is not well positioned to transform itself to help shape graduates who can ‘race against the machines.’ Not in time, and not at scale. Autodidacts will do well, as they have always done, but the broad masses of people are being prepared for the wrong economy.

About the report

The report about these predictions comes in the sixth canvassing of experts done by the Pew Research Center in association with the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University. This is the third report generated out of the results of Web-based questions fielded from late November 2013 to early January 2014. The survey gathered opinions on eight Internet issues from a select group of experts and the highly engaged Internet public.

Drilldown


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