What Happens If Artificial Intelligence Puts Us All Out of Work?

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As robots become more sophisticated and take over a greater range of tasks, it's hard to know whether to celebrate the progress or fear the consequences. Here's what some of the scholars are saying.

It’s clear that robots are taking over new tasks at an accelerating pace. With the aid of artificial intelligence, homes are being “printed” in advance for construction, which means they require fewer humans to put them together. There’s a robot that can flip burgers — goodbye, McDonald’s human crew! — and others that can handle many traditional manufacturing jobs. According to Wired, one new “manufacturing device from Universal Robots doesn’t just solder, paint, screw, glue and grasp — it builds new parts for itself on the fly when they wear out or bust.”

And — this is truly sobering — AI is also capable of handling many white-collar jobs. Some emerging AI will be able to replace some computer programmers, and learn and improve itself. According to Gizmodo:

Once sophisticated enough, an AI will be able to engage in what’s called “recursive self-improvement.” As an AI becomes smarter and more capable, it will subsequently become better at the task of developing its internal cognitive functions. In turn, these modifications will kickstart a cascading series of improvements, each one making the AI smarter at the task of improving itself. It’s an advantage that we biological humans simply don’t have.

Where is it all going? Will it eliminate the need for all human labor, resulting in some strange dystopian world, or create freedom and unleash creativity that humans have never known? Will it light our economy on fire, or crush it?

Many great minds are occupied with these questions.

One optimistic view is put forward by Martin Ford in his book “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.” In an interview with Wired, Ford argues that by letting robots handle much of the work that humans currently do, the new economy could provide a universal guaranteed income, and free humans to be more creative and productive:

“People say that having a guaranteed income will turn everyone into a slacker and destroy the economy. I think the opposite might be true, that it might push us toward more entrepreneurship and more risk-taking.”

Meanwhile, a couple of management gurus at MIT see something more ominous in the move towards automation — that even as technological advances in the United States and other advanced economies are increasing productivity, they are also responsible for sluggish growth in jobs in the last 10 to 15 years. Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and his colleague Andrew McAfee — who co-wrote the book “Race Against the Machine” — point to this troubling trend in an article in MIT Technology Review:

Brynjolfsson and McAfee still believe that technology boosts productivity and makes societies wealthier, but they think that it can also have a dark side: Technological progress is eliminating the need for many types of jobs and leaving the typical worker worse off than before.

What does the rapid pace of technological advancement look like from your vantage point? Do you feel you are benefiting? Falling behind? Check out our video exploring the topic, and share your thoughts in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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