Artificial intelligence and our future

The Economist has published a six-part study of how artificial intelligence and robotics are likely to impact our future (particularly for those in the workforce).  The parts are:

Click on each link to read the associated article.  Here’s an excerpt from the first article in the series to whet your appetite.

THERE IS SOMETHING familiar about fears that new machines will take everyone’s jobs, benefiting only a select few and upending society. Such concerns sparked furious arguments two centuries ago as industrialisation took hold in Britain. People at the time did not talk of an “industrial revolution” but of the “machinery question”. First posed by the economist David Ricardo in 1821, it concerned the “influence of machinery on the interests of the different classes of society”, and in particular the “opinion entertained by the labouring class, that the employment of machinery is frequently detrimental to their interests”. Thomas Carlyle, writing in 1839, railed against the “demon of mechanism” whose disruptive power was guilty of “oversetting whole multitudes of workmen”.

Today the machinery question is back with a vengeance, in a new guise. Technologists, economists and philosophers are now debating the implications of artificial intelligence (AI), a fast-moving technology that enables machines to perform tasks that could previously be done only by humans. Its impact could be profound. It threatens workers whose jobs had seemed impossible to automate, from radiologists to legal clerks. A widely cited study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University, published in 2013, found that 47% of jobs in America were at high risk of being “substituted by computer capital” soon. More recently Bank of America Merrill Lynch predicted that by 2025 the “annual creative disruption impact” from AI could amount to $14 trillion-33 trillion, including a $9 trillion reduction in employment costs thanks to AI-enabled automation of knowledge work; cost reductions of $8 trillion in manufacturing and health care; and $2 trillion in efficiency gains from the deployment of self-driving cars and drones. The McKinsey Global Institute, a think-tank, says AI is contributing to a transformation of society “happening ten times faster and at 300 times the scale, or roughly 3,000 times the impact” of the Industrial Revolution.

. . .

Such concerns have been prompted by astonishing recent progress in AI, a field long notorious for its failure to deliver on its promises. “In the past couple of years it’s just completely exploded,” says Demis Hassabis, the boss and co-founder of DeepMind, an AI startup bought by Google in 2014 for $400m. Earlier this year his firm’s AlphaGo system defeated Lee Sedol, one of the world’s best players of Go, a board game so complex that computers had not been expected to master it for another decade at least. “I was a sceptic for a long time, but the progress now is real. The results are real. It works,” says Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz, a Silicon Valley venture-capital firm.

In particular, an AI technique called “deep learning”, which allows systems to learn and improve by crunching lots of examples rather than being explicitly programmed, is already being used to power internet search engines, block spam e-mails, suggest e-mail replies, translate web pages, recognise voice commands, detect credit-card fraud and steer self-driving cars. “This is a big deal,” says Jen-Hsun Huang, chief executive of NVIDIA, a firm whose chips power many AI systems. “Instead of people writing software, we have data writing software.”

There’s much more at the six links above.  Highly recommended reading.



  1. Author is not a job that is threatened by AI, so you're safe, Peter! My job as a computer repair guy looks to be fairly secure as well.

  2. Disruptive certainly. However, humans have remained highly adaptable and will likely come through this disruption as well. We may be doing different jobs, but there are likely to be jobs needing to be done.

  3. My daughters both settled on health-related careers that are relatively insensitive to automation.

    But they thought I was joking rather than dead serious when I told them that if they didn't want to spend years in college they should consider training in auto mechanics, plumbing, HVAC . . . basically, any hands-on job that is hard to automate and needs to be done locally.

    Our HVAC guy arrived in the US from Vietnam (with a few years in a refugee camp along the way) at the age of 14. He told me that he finished High School, but he was far enough behind academically that he didn't think he was ready for traditional college, so he signed up for a trades course in our local community college instead. He owns his own business (and does pretty well, from what I can see – several employees), has put a couple of daughters through college – and has a son who's learning the HVAC business so he can take over some day.

    I know quite a few people with college degrees who'd love to be as successful – and unless our whole economy collapses, he's not really worried about his job becoming obsolete. And I doubt his son need worry about it, either.

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