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Is the Future of Work threatened by the rise of Artificial Intelligence?

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Artificial intelligence is no longer restricted to Hollywood sci-fi movies. Over the past few years, machines have started challenging – and beating – humans at tasks we humans thought were our private turf. Just earlier this year, a machine beat professional players at the ultimate bluffing game: poker.

Given these newly acquired skills making machines more and more human everyday, it is only natural to ask ourselves what tomorrow’s division of labor will resemble. In a hundred years, in what specific area will our human added value reside?

There are many widely diverging theories out there, from human-exterminating machines to cancer-curing robots and everything in between, but despite the varying predictions, we can boil down the “machine vs. human work” debate to 4 key points.

1. Artificial intelligence will destroy human jobs, including intellectual jobs

In addition to the many emerging applications in machine learning, a few initiatives of artificial brains have launched these past ten years, among which the NeuroSpin Project (Europe, 2007), the Blue Brain / Human Brain Project (Europe, 2005), and the BRAIN Initiative (US, Executive Office of the President Obama, 2013) based on the Human Genome Project.

Futurist economist Robin Hanson is even predicting the emergence of brain emulators which he nicknames Ems. Cautious forward-thinkers are joining forces to bring awareness to the threats of AI, by cosigning an open letter preventing from existential risk (Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Nick Bostrom, etc.) and envisioning a panic button to switch off a super-intelligence should it suddenly pose a risk to humankind.

Without going this far into scary scenarios, a new phase of automation has started and it is different from previous industrial revolutions, as this time jobs requiring high expertise will be threatened as well.

To provide you with a few examples, anyone whose job is tied to speech recognition or translation might be feeling the heat from Google Translate whose translations are getting more elegant and natural each day, or from Microsoft that announced three months ago having reached human parity regarding conversational speech recognition.

In a completely different field, two hedge fund quantitative analysts new to deep learning developed an algorithm that diagnoses heart disease from MRI images in just a few seconds (Source: Data Science Bowl, Booz Allen Hamilton). It is incredible to see them achieve the same reliability as a cardiologist a thousand times faster, but the result is simply mind-boggling when one realizes the pair had absolutely no medical background whatsoever.

Andrew Moore, dean of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science explains that “Many of us in the A.I. field believe that physicians will be replaced long before nurses are replaced. The parts of medical care to do more with interacting with the patients, making them comfortable, and communicating clearly with them are going to turn out to be the things that only humans can do well. The diagnostics, coming up with a theory as to what’s going on, or what a good subsequent test would be – those are the things that look very promising for automation.”

2. Artificial intelligence will destroy traditional jobs and create new jobs

Accenture states that “AI has the potential to boost labor productivity by up to 40 percent in 2035” (Source: “Why Artificial Intelligence is the Future of Growth”). So what consequences are we to expect on the macroeconomic level?

Actually, experts have different opinions about how many jobs will be displaced and how many will emerge. Forrester estimates that “16% of US jobs will be replaced, while the equivalent of 9% jobs will be created — a net loss of 7% of US jobs by 2025” (Source: “Robots and AI will replace 7% of US jobs by 2025”).

Nearly 2000 experts were interviewed by the Pew Research Center on the economic impact of robotic advances and AI. Half of them (48%) envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue and white-collar workers, leading to vast increases in income inequality, unemployment, and breakdowns in the social order. The other half expects that technology will not displace more jobs than it creates by 2025 and keep faith that human ingenuity will create new jobs and industries. (Source: “AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs”)

Hal Varian, chief economist for Google, makes a relevant prediction, illustrating that artificial intelligence is no reason for alarm. “The work week has fallen from 70 hours a week to about 37 hours now, and I expect that it will continue to fall. This is a good thing. Everyone wants more jobs and less work. Robots of various forms will result in less work, but the conventional work week will decrease, so there will be the same number of jobs (adjusted for demographics, of course). This is what has been going on for the last 300 years so I see no reason that it will stop in the decade.”

Whatever the predictions on the delta (slightly positive or slightly negative), one sure thing is that many categories of jobs are going to disappear to the benefit of new job categories. Therefore…

3. Jobs created by artificial intelligence will require a new skill set

Actual people will lose jobs and won’t be able to get the new jobs created as they won’t have the necessary skills to gain these jobs.

McKinsey moderated a panel of experts on the topic of this transformation (Source: “Automation, jobs, and the future of work”). What the industry leaders need today is to rethink job content in a new AI-enhanced era, to get the workforce to adapt to these new paradigms by training employees and including them in this transformation, and to improve job quality as real man-machine collaboration. So that artificial intelligence can really become an “augmented human intelligence”.

A few recommendations to the corporate world include having the cognitive transformation be a priority of top management, creating a cognitive center of excellence, or building man-machine high-performance teams to achieve true man-computer symbiosis.

As economist Laura Tyson states, “We’re talking about machines—machines displacing people, machines changing the ways in which people work. Who owns the machines? Perhaps what we need to think about is the way in which the workers who are working with the machines are part owners of the machines” Yes, as a (still) human society caring to always reduce inequality, we need to ask ourselves who owns the machine.

4. Government and education need to be involved in order to sustain the transformation

Government and education institutions need to work hand in hand in order to provide individuals with the soon-to-become necessary skills.

A first task is to identify the new skills required, by analyzing how the content of work is changing.

A second is to develop training programs that are adapted to the acquisition of those skills.

A third is to make sure that these programs remain available to everybody without discrimination, so that these future jobs are not limited to a few elite.

In an interview published in Wired, President Barack Obama gives a panorama of what the government is doing in that matter. One of the conclusions he draws is that “So for us to reexamine what we value, what we are collectively willing to pay for—whether it’s teachers, nurses, caregivers, moms or dads who stay at home, artists, all the things that are incredibly valuable to us right now but don’t rank high on the pay totem pole—that’s a conversation we need to begin to have.” The topic concerning the rise of AI is much broader than a conversation about tech. It concerns us all as human individuals who need to find purpose in our life through our work.

And the corporate world is joining the march. According to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, “The notion that you went to school until you were 21 and then after that got into a profession and stayed in that same profession until you’re 80 is just not going to be true any more, because of the pace of technological change in that period. Life-long learning will be powered by AI in partnership with services such as LinkedIn: The news feed will show you learning modules so that you can seek the jobs of the future, so that your economic opportunity is maximized”. (Source: “Satya Nadella, Microsoft, on why robots are the future of work”).

Whether the great AI revolution is upon us or not is no longer up for debate. The real question is how we will adapt, and how prepared we – and the next generation – will be skillwise to make the most of what lies ahead. For once reality is just like Hollywood: AI is both exciting and terrifying…

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