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“Everybody would go, ‘Oh, my God, we’re going to be out of work,”’ Ray Kurzweil, singularity expert, told Fortune’s Michal Lev-Ram. “I would say, ‘Well, don’t worry, for every job we eliminate, we’re going to create more jobs at the top of the skill ladder.'” Kurzweil added that when people ask what these new jobs would be, he’d say, “Well, I don’t know. We haven’t invented them yet.”
Today, the world is on the cusp of a projected major change in employment, with millions of jobs and even entire industries set to be replaced by robots in the coming years. And while there is a lot of talk about Singularity, the period of time when artificial superintelligence (ASI) will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization, there is not a lot being done to prepare for it.
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Artificial Intelligence & Employment Statistics
While full singularity is not projected to happen until around 2025-2050, the effects of Artificial Intelligence (AI) automation are already causing changes in companies. A recent report from Forrester predicts that by 2021, intelligent agents and related robots will have eliminated a net 6% of jobs, which equals 9 million jobs in the United States.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) publishes The Future of Jobs report, predicting substantial changes to jobs and employment for white-collar workers as technological advances gain momentum. One of their shocking predictions is that 65% of children entering primary school now will work in roles that currently do not exist. The National Public Radio job calculator, using research by the University of Oxford, allows people to input their current occupations to find out their personal likelihood of being replaced by a machine.
Current Reactions to Artificial Intelligence
While people in all areas of society are raising alarms about the need to prepare for technological unemployment caused by AI, there is little actually being done about it. Some nations, driven by fear, seek to keep singularity from ever occurring by banning AI technologies that are currently available. The most direct way of slowing or stopping AI-driven automation is banning it outright. India is banning self-driving cars from operating in their country in an effort to protect jobs. Safety reasons also motivate bans, with San Francisco considering a ban on sidewalk delivery robots. Market-based mechanisms like “robot taxes” seek to disincentivize ai proliferation by taxing profit from the gains that job-displacing robots bring to companies. San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim created a Jobs for the Future Fund, which proposes that “as workers are displaced,  companies continue to pay a portion of the lost tax into a fund that can then be used for education, retraining and targeted investments in new industries.”
Lawmakers seeking to protect jobs also propose limiting companies’ costs of employment to make automation less attractive. Keeping the minimum wage low, and reducing payroll taxes and health insurance costs, or even making health insurance government-paid are all ways to reduce the economic burden of employing people.
On the other side of the spectrum are people who fully embrace automation and everything that comes with it, even to the point of merging human and digital intelligence. SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk is working on a brain-computer interface venture called Neuralink. This company and others like it are developing implantable devices for the human brain, to help human beings merge with software and keep pace with advancements in artificial intelligence. Enhancements like improved memory would be part of the “neural lace,” which is a brain-computer interface that humans could use to improve themselves. This merging with machines would solve technological unemployment by directly upgrading human minds, making them just as fast and advanced as artificial intelligence.
With such wildly divergent views of AI and automation, it’s important to keep an eye on the positives it can bring. AI and automation eliminate tedious tasks, freeing individuals to pursue careers that give us a greater sense of meaning. How can we create a world with AI that results in careers that challenge us and instill a sense of belonging, while freeing up leisure time for creativity and family pursuits? This is the noble challenge of humans faced with the growth of artificial intelligence.
Action is Needed Now to Prepare for Technological Unemployment
One thing is for sure: companies, individuals, and governments need to take action now to prepare for the rapid acceleration of job changes that AI will bring.
Individuals need to take a hard look at the effects AI will have on their future employment. Some of the jobs that are highly likely to disappear with the rise of AI and automation are lawyers, accountants, bank representatives, financial analysts, and construction workers. Students need to be aware of these trends and chose careers that are likely to survive automation. Most of these careers will require advanced learning, as mid-level jobs with a lot of repetition are likely to be eliminated first. Young workers who choose careers where relationship-building and decision making are central, such as in the creative, technology, or healthcare industries, are likely to thrive during the next wave of automation. Existing workers cannot ignore life-long learning if they want to enjoy fulfilling and rewarding careers. Armed with knowledge about the careers that will grow during the AI revolution, a wise worker would begin now to grow in-demand skill sets.
Companies need to start today, reskilling and upskilling their labor forces to prepare for the future of work. Careful consideration of the far-reaching effects of automation is required as companies make choices about further automating their processes using AI. Elon Musk offers a cautionary tale with the recent underperformance of his robot-driven Tesla factory. Faced with poor production and falling profits, he said “Yes, excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.” -Elon Musk, April 2018. Large corporations like IBM are already conducting research into the applications of AI, and partnership with thought leaders in the space can help businesses to formulate their own plans for AI and human integration in the workplace.
Policy-makers need to keep an eye on the future, creating structures and institutions that can retrain the existing workforce to participate in the AI economy. Since much of the education system is in the hands of the government, that's a good place to start. The first Industrial Revolution transitioned 90% of the American population from farming down to just 2% by the time it was over. The mass adoption of compulsory primary education was the key to equipping people with the necessary skills for the new types of work. Industrial-age education needs an update to integrate the new skills that employees will need in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Artificial Intelligence and Our Future
Rather than being driven by fear of loss, let's looks to a future where AI empowers people to live better lives and work together to attain it. “A lot of people think things are getting worse, partly because that’s actually an evolutionary adaptation: It’s very important for your survival to be sensitive to bad news. A little rustling in the leaves may be a predator, and you better pay attention to that. All of these technologies are a risk. And the powerful ones—biotechnology, nanotechnology, and A.I.—are potentially existential risks.” – Ray Kurzweil. Knowing the risks and opportunities that AI creates, we can create a society that works for all.
“Simply put, jobs that robots can replace are not good jobs in the first place. As humans, we climb up the rungs of drudgery — physically tasking or mind-numbing jobs — to jobs that use what got us to the top of the food chain, our brains.” — The Wall Street Journal, The Robots Are Coming. Welcome Them.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution will eliminate a significant number of jobs through the combination of Artificial Intelligence and automation. Most children entering school now are likely to work jobs that do not yet exist, so let us all be a part of preparing them for a bright new future of meaningful work with time to enjoy family and explore their creativity. Humans created artificial intelligence, so we are the ones that must harness it for good.