Who are the winners and losers in the age of robots?
Prof Tom Davenport to those concerned by the growing influence of robotics technology: ‘you can’t beat ‘em, so join ‘em.
New recruit “Pepper” the robot, a humanoid robot designed to welcome and take care of visitors and patients, holds the hand of a new born baby next to his mother at AZ Damiaan hospital in Ostend, Belgium. Photograph: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
There will always be advocates and resistors to change. The march of progress is loathe to unscheduled stops and while conservatives can stall things, they can’t reverse it. Ironically technology is very limited in terms of the directions it can move.
But as we enter a new era where artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced robotics exhibit alarming levels of autonomy, self-awareness and analytical skills, new questions are being raised.
In previous eras of major technological change, such as the dawn of the industrial age, the perceived threat was easy to identify. “The Luddites were reacting to technology that was actually in place – textile mills,” explains Prof Tom Davenport. “They had tangible things to object to, to take sledgehammers to.
“The kinds of cognitive technologies that confront us now, are far more abstract in nature. Much of the advances still haven’t been seen in regular day-to-day working life and so haven’t led to significant job losses yet.”
Oh but disruption is coming. Approximately 10 per cent of all employees globally will be replaced by robots in the coming years, according to Davenport. That being said, the fate of individuals facing the prospect of life in a world of omnipresent robotics and AI technology is still very much theirs to determine.
In his new book, Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines, coauthored with Julia Kirby, Prof Tom Davenport begins by reminding readers that the threat to knowledge workers from smart machines is real, and that no one should be complacent about their jobs. But the book’s overall argument is positive.
“We’re more optimistic than many observers,” he says. “Computers and robots take over tasks, but rarely entire jobs. It will be a long time before machines can do the breadth of tasks that humans can. Our focus is thus on augmentation – computers and humans working collaboratively – rather than automation. We argue that there will be many jobs that will exist alongside smart machines, either working directly with them or doing things they don’t do.”
So far those opposed to the unchecked escalation of AI technology have not been very organised but some very respected players have publicly raised concerns – Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking, for example. “I repeat, I don’t believe anyone should be complacent,” he says. “But the reality is we’re not seeing much evidence to suggest job losses will be major or rapid.
“There are approximately as many bank tellers in the US now as there was in 1980,” he says. “This is undoubtedly an area where we’ve seen increased automation but job losses have still happened slowly.”
Because existing cognitive technologies replace tasks, and not entire jobs, augmentation rather than automation is not only optimistic, it’s realistic. The fortunes of global economic productivity and growth aren’t dependent on either human or machine. Those who see technology as a colleague rather than a competitor will continue to play a vital role in any business or organisation. If humans and machines work in tandem, new ways to make things work better, smarter, and faster will emerge.
The challenge to all this, however, is equipping people with the correct technological acumen to adapt and stay one step ahead of the technology. “There is no doubt that many jobs are threatened by the rise of artificial intelligence,” explains Paul Dunne, CEO and founder of the Digital Skills Academy in Dublin’s Digital Hub. “To bridge the gap individuals need to develop a hybrid skill-set that integrates, not replaces, their current skill-set with advanced digital technology, digital business, and creative innovation skills. This will give them the tools and techniques to work with AI into the future and to perform their role better, faster and more efficiently.
For Davenport, more niche digital upskilling – specific to various industries like education, law, banking, etc – is also crucial.
“Computer and STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] training will be helpful for some of the roles we define, but not all of them. Many of the jobs working alongside machines will require a general knowledge of how computers think, but also a lot of detailed knowledge on the specific knowledge domain the computers are helping with – law, medicine, marketing, etc. That will probably mean that the training on smart machines will need to be in that specific context. In addition, the jobs that involve doing tasks computers are unlikely to take over – we call them ‘step aside’ and ‘step narrowly’ jobs – probably won’t involve computer skills or STEM education. Those skills are the tasks at which computers are far better at than humans, so in many cases it won’t make sense to compete with them in these areas.”
Davenport’s optimistic but pragmatic perspective on a subject where it’s so much easier to scaremonger is refreshing. “While much of the current commentary on AI automation focuses solely on the negative impact on jobs, Davenport’s thesis is correctly grounded in both the opportunities that AI presents and the potential for job losses,” says Dunne. “Indeed, Gartner has predicted that by 2018, 20 per cent of business content will be authored by machines, more than three million workers globally will be supervised by a ‘robo-boss’ and 45 per cent of the fastest-growing companies will have fewer employees than instances of smart machines. While these statistics are alarming, and rightly so, the other narrative that Davenport discusses is the awesome potential that collaborating and working with AI provides.”
Professor Davenport is speaking at the “Data-Savvy Practitioner Forum” at University College Cork on Friday, June 24th. He also teaches regularly in the “Data Business” programme sponsored by UCC and the Irish Management Institute