Artificial Intelligence: Will it really terminate the labour force?

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It's almost scary to think that the world as we know it may well be run by Artificial Intelligence (AI) one day.

While the risk of an imminent AI disruption of the labour market may sound like a fantasy, those with the most advanced AI technologies at hand think that AI is an imminent threat.

They say an Industry 4.0 or cyber physical systems (CPS) revolution is coming whether we like it or not. Is this really true?

AI in the labour market means the use of intelligent software to optimise the delivery of services by humans.

However, in a recent meeting with U.S. governors, business magnate Elon Musk warned:

"AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilisation and I don't think people fully appreciate that … [AI] is the scariest problem.”

But if this AI business is such an unfettered terminator, why has Mr Musk’s warning fallen on deaf ears? Why haven’t regulators and companies rung the alarm bells yet?

Well, aside from one explanation that it may be a conspiracy, some experts think that Mr Musk’s statement is an unnecessary exaggeration of the reality. It is true that Mr Musk may have access to the most cutting-edge AI technology in pursuit of his autonomous machines; however, he is not the only one.

Others with access to similar technology, such as Arizona State University computer scientist Subbarao Kambhampati, have a different view.

Kambhampati says:

'While there needs to be an open discussion about the societal impacts of AI technology, much of Mr Musk’s oft-repeated concerns seem to focus on the rather far-fetched super-intelligence take-over scenarios .… Mr Musk’s megaphone seems to be rather unnecessarily distorting the public debate, and that is quite unfortunate.'

Additionally, nowhere in the '2016 Obama Administration AI Report' do we see any references to such imminent threats. So, does this mean that we should disregard Mr Musk’s warning?

Perhaps not entirely, according to a recent report published by the International Bar Association Global Employment Institute (IBA GEI).

This report has in fact raised some alarming issues as to the faith of both blue and white-collar sectors unless AI is proactively monitored and regulated. 

Coordinator of the report, Gerlind Wisskirchen, IBA GEI Vice Chair for Multinationals, commented

Certainly, a technological revolution is not new, but in past times it has been gradual. What is new about the present revolution is the alacrity with which change is occurring, and the broadness of impact being brought about by AI and robotics. Jobs at all levels in society presently undertaken by humans are at risk of being reassigned to robots or AI and the legislation once in place to protect the rights of human workers may be no longer fit for purpose, in some cases.

... The AI phenomenon is on an exponential curve, while legislation is doing its best on an incremental basis. New labour and employment legislation is urgently needed to keep pace with increased automation.

In the past, the human workforce was mainly involved in mass production of raw materials and manufacturing. Today it is about service delivery. This tertiary sector consists of almost 70 per cent of the human workforce and involves the use of individual effort and skill to deliver a service for someone else. It is this sector that is supposedly under threat from AI.

What is the extent of the threat?

No doubt the advent of AI machines powered by complex algorithms and computer applications has already begun to strongly influence the world of work; so much that sometimes it is impossible to run the world without them. Labour in the automotive, chemical, agricultural, IT, media, finance and insurance industries has already been dominated by AI robots.

In Australia, the legislation explicitly allows government agencies to use AI in making automated decisions. For example, the Centrelink “robodebt endeavour that generates debt statements for members of the public, without human intervention.

However, does this mean that the end of the human labour force has arrived? Perhaps not yet.

The current trend in automation does not equate to an imminent threat to human workers; the most obvious reason being that humans are adaptable and automation is controllable. As long as costs for service delivery by both AI and humans can be moderated, automation will not completely displace human labour. For instance, production in the clothing, catering and construction industries is still delivered by human labour because there is no AI technology that is as affordable as human labour. 

Of course, such a conclusion requires a more precise and individual examination of all the sectors by country and region. However, the available evidence suggests that – unlike in the past where humans have actively participated in the mass production and service delivery – automation will allow humans to supervise this process, thereby enabling them to be more productive and creative. 

The future

Predicting the future of the labour market is a difficult task. While it is true that human labour is poised to be displaced by AI, the current trend of automation suggests that the human element is an indelible part of the labour market. No doubt Industry 4.0 is coming if not already here; however, experts disagree as to the rate of the impact it will have on the global workforce. It is currently a little over-dramatised, so they say.

For instance, we learn from the well-known economist John Maynard Keynes – who, in 1930, coined the term “technological unemployment” – that our attitudes to impending AI technology should neither refuse to accept that the labour market will change dramatically nor assume that it will end the world as we know it.

It’s a balancing act. And both schools of thought agree with this. As a result, regulators and governments must be more proactive with their efforts to achieve this balance. For example, when driverless cars replace human drivers, by investing in education and creating training programs, human drivers can be reskilled for other jobs. Bill Gates suggests that the money for such initiatives can be earned by taxing robots’ productivity just like we tax humans.

So, as long as a balance is achieved, there is no need to panic just yet. Humans are adaptable and empathy will always remain an essential ingredient of our service delivery processes. This, AI cannot compete with.

Arthur Marusevich is a Canberra-based lawyer.

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