Analysis: With Uber looking to replace one million drivers with its self-driving vehicles, will AI really lead to mass unemployment?
Artificial Intelligence – a technology which has continually broken promises. Until now, that is.
AI technology has always been the star striker of the technology field, hugely expensive and much hyped. However, AI has never scored the big goals promised by those working on the sidelines, with a Minority Report-esque world remaining in the realms of fiction.
However, no one can ignore the renewed enthusiasm that AI is today courting – companies like Salesforce, Intel and Apple are rushing to acquire AI start-ups, bolstering their in-house offerings, while others are creating secretive labs in order to get a jump on competitors.
Everyone seems to be throwing their hat into a driverless, smart, self-learning, AI project or company, indicating that the much lauded ‘Machine Age’ may be closer than critics think. A recent announcement adds fuel to that argument, with Uber rolling out its first driverless vehicles to passengers in Pittsburgh, US.
When the announcement was made there was much excitement about the $300m tie-up with Volvo and the technology underpinning the self-driving car – we were finally seeing a smart project come to fruition. It was proof that AI can deliver on its promises, that it can be the future.
However, looking a little closer, a red flag was thrown up in regards to the company’s end game. Uber wants to replace its one million drivers with self-driving vehicles, with the company wanting to make that shift as quickly as possible. This stirs up arguments about the role of humans in a future dominated by smart machines and machine learning, a debate which is as old as the technology itself. But, as Uber proves, if AI is starting to deliver on its promises then we need to look at the role of the human in a smart world sooner rather than later.
The truth is, there are going to be human casualties. Kathryn Dooks, Employment Partner at Kemp Little, told CBR: “Businesses are increasingly under pressure to increase productivity and AI is a key way to achieve this. Robots don’t get sick, they don’t strike, and they need far less management. There are many benefits for businesses adopting AI technology however there are some socio economic risks that could lead to high levels of unemployment.”
Customer service and call centres are often used as examples of an industry which could be potentially decimated by AI, due in part to technologies like virtual helpdesks and automated chat. However, other industries are also in the firing line – as proved by Uber.
If Uber succeeds in its driverless roll-out, one million drivers could potentially lose their livelihoods, alongside all other taxi and private hire drivers who could be replaced by the driverless cars promised by Ford, Google and Tesla. Those higher up the chain are also at risk, as Derren Nisbet, Managing Director of Unit4, told CBR;
“Many managerial tasks are surprisingly repetitive, and therefore easier than you would expect to automate using artificial intelligence. Air traffic control, for instance, is a managerial task that falls into this role. When it becomes clear that AI's managerial decision making is better than humans', executives may be forced to take a step backwards whether they like it or not.”
The workers ousted by technology will impact the economy, as already mentioned. Although there will be a significant decrease in the global working age population, with falls in global economic growth, there is no need for 'robot overlords' scaremongering – what we do need to do is adapt, with skills and technology, to positively harness the power of this technology.
“The key challenge for governments and employers is to upskill and re-skill the workforce to avoid mass unemployment – as we step into the Fourth Industrial revolution, we will need to adapt our skills to meet demands for particular jobs.” Said Kathryn Dooks.
“When the steam engine was invented its creation didn’t in the longer term lead to permanent mass unemployment, we just used our brains to create more things and new jobs. Essentially technology has freed up space for creativity and we have developed new ways of working as a result. It’s a real ‘friend or foe’ situation.”
Yes, AI could cause mass employment, but if we form the correct dynamic with it, then who knows what innovations and advancements we could end up with. For example, if companies utilised the processing power of AI alongside unique human chateristics such as emotion, a new way of working could be born. Explaining this opportunity, Mark Sear, CTO Big Data, EMC Consulting EMEA, said:
“AI and data analytics are not here to make people redundant, they are here to allow us to re-focus on our often overlooked, but totally unique interpersonal skills. I believe Emotional Intelligence is the key to ongoing success. While machines surpass people at mathematical or physically gruelling and precise tasks, they are terrible at anything requiring “soft skills”.
“Good communication and interpersonal skills are vital in any role, and the backbone of any business which requires dealing with other people. Demand for Emotionally Intelligent individuals who excel at these aspects, while machines take care of the rest, will surely rise and I believe dramatically so.”
Emotions are not our ownly unique trait, but perhaps feed into another – creativity. This, argues David Eden of Tata Communications, could be the greatest human skill deployed in the human-machine dynamic.
"In order for businesses and society as a whole to be able to use AI to drive growth and prosperity the world over, we need to focus on how machines and humans can co-create instead of simply co-exist. So, what human skills and characteristics can best complement an AI?
"Despite rapid advances in supercomputing, we’re decades away from seeing an AI as complex as the human brain. And, even the most sophisticated AI will always lack one skill – creativity. That’s why creativity is the greatest skill we must instil in future generations to ensure that the workforce will be able to harness the full power of AI and not become a casualty of automation.”
AI is starting to make good on its promises, with the explosion in companies buying, developing and rolling-out AI further accelerating the move to the Machine Age. While robot overlords remain the stuff of fantasists, companies and workers need to be aware that AI is going to disrupt the workplace in a potentially huge way. Mass employment could become a reality, but it needn’t be a long term reality. Employers need to think about the skills needed in the future, with the government giving support to initiatives designed to aid the transition to the machine age.
We survived the last industrial revolution – and just look at the innovations and advancements which came as a result of it.
“Artificial intelligence has the potential to be the most positive technology that humans ever create,” said OpenAI Chief Technology Officer Greg Brockman. “It has the potential to unlock the solutions to problems that have really plagued us for a very long time.”