Don’t Be Alarmed: AI Won’t Leave Half the World Unemployed

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Recent alarmist headlines this week claim artificial intelligence (AI) will put half of us out of work.

These headlines—and there were several—stem from comments by Rice University’s computer scientist Moshe Vardi who at the weekend asked what society would do when, within 30 years, machines become capable of doing almost any job a human can.

As ever, reality is likely to be far more nuanced than sensational headlines.

The most detailed study in this area came out in September 2013 from the Oxford Martin School. This report predicted that 47% of jobs in the US were under threat of automation. Similar studies have since been performed for other countries, reaching broadly similar conclusions.

Now, there’s a lot I would disagree with in the Oxford report. But, for the sake of the discussion here, let’s just suppose for a moment that the report is correct.

Even with this assumption, you cannot conclude that half of us will be unemployed in 30 or so years. The Oxford report merely estimated the number of jobs that are potentially automatable over the next few decades. There are many reasons why this will not translate into 47% unemployment.

We still want a human on the job

The report merely estimated the number of jobs that are susceptible to automation. Some of these jobs won’t be automated in practice for economical, societal, technical and other reasons.

For example, we can pretty much automate the job of an airline pilot today. Indeed, most of the time, a computer is flying your plane. But society is likely to continue to demand the reassurance of having a pilot on board even if they are just reading their iPad most of the time.

As a second example, the Oxford report gives a 94% chance for bicycle repairer to be automated. But it is likely to be very expensive and difficult to automate this job, and therefore uneconomic to do so.

We also need to consider all the new jobs that technology will create. For example, we don’t employ many printers setting type any more. But we do employ many more people in the digital equivalent, making web pages.

Of course, if you are a printer and your job is destroyed, it helps if you’re suitably educated so you can re-position yourself in one of these new industries.

Some of these jobs will only be partially automated, and automation will in fact enhance a person’s ability to do the job. For example, the Oxford report gives a 98% chance of umpiring or refereeing to be automated. But we are likely to have just as many if not more umpires and referees in the future, even if they use technologies to do their job better.

Automation can create employment

In fact, the US Department of Labor predicts that we will see a 5% increase in umpires and referees over the next decade.

The Oxford report give a 63% chance for geoscientists to be automated. But automation is more likely to permit geoscientists to do more geoscience.

Indeed, the US Department of Labor actually predicts the next decade will see a 10% increase in the number of geoscientists as we seek to make more of the planet’s diminishing resources.

We also need to consider how the working week will change over the next few decades. Most countries in the developed world have seen the number of hours worked per week decrease significantly since the start of the industrial revolution.

In the US, the average working week has declined from around 60 hours to just 33. Other developed countries are even lower. Germans only work 26 hours per week. If these trends continue, we will need to create more jobs to replace these lost hours.

In my view, it’s hard to predict with any certainty how many of us will really be unemployed in a few decades time but I am very skeptical that it will be half of us. Society would break down well before we get to 50% unemployment.

My guess is it will be at most half of this prediction, 25% at most. This is nevertheless an immense change, and one that we need to start planning for and mitigating against today.

Toby Walsh, Professor of AI, Research Group Leader, Optimisation Research Group, Data61

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Toby Walsh

Toby Walsh

Toby Walsh is a Professor of Artificial Intelligence at UNSW, and Research Leader at Data61 (formerly NICTA) in the Optimisation Research Group where he leads the Algorithmic Decision Theory project. Data61 is Australia's Centre of Excellence for ICT Research. He has been Editor-in-Chief of two of the main journals in AI: the Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research, and AI Communications. He is currently Associate Editor of one of the leading journals in computer science, the Journal of the ACM covering the area of Artificial Intelligence.
Toby Walsh

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Discussion — 28 Responses

  • rtryon February 19, 2016 on 11:30 am

    As inventor in 1965-75 of lots of automation in typesetting and printing for 10,000 items per week needed in medical and dental offices, I certainly created many of the 600 jobs that let us beat many competitors that used obsolete but unchanged technology for a hundred years. Today that software is still in use, but far fewer orders arrive now because the health care delivery system and insurance claim activity it also now automated!

    I am also an economist, experienced union and non-union labor negotiator (read collective bargainer vs individual performance grader/evaluator able to treat everyone as an individual with differing personal needs and capabilities. As such, I have no allusion about impact of technology that does both create and destroy jobs as currently defined.

    As long as we can invent more consumer products and advertising to sell them to people that can be trained to want to buy them, the age of consumerism is forever? Not really, some may collect automobiles, but few ever try to drive more than one at a time! Yes, the propensity to consume does diminish especially when the ever higher taxes also diminishes the propensity to work!

    As a result, it is correct to say that the future is full of unknowns that will change the answers to many questions, without even considering the impact of average age with greater longevity, or pestilence, wars, and natural and distant catastrophes.

  • Tim February 19, 2016 on 2:31 pm

    At first, I was not buying the headline here, but the last paragraph is right on target: “My guess is it will be at most half of this prediction, 25% at most. This is nevertheless an immense change, and one that we need to start planning for and mitigating against today.”

    The short term issue we have is that current leadership and economic thinking seems to be stuck in the past. Hopefully that is changing. The FED still has the mandate of “fixing” employment. But the future is likely to require far fewer workers (50% less? 25% less?), and we need to think that through. Some call for a basic wage for all citizens. Others think the current economic model will implode and folks will need to take up homesteading / urban farming. Maybe some sort of network of DIY, self-employed localized economies will replace the larger economy if mass W-2 employment no longer sustains the consumer. Why build a robot factory to create millions of smart phones (or whatever) if few people are employed with money to buy them? Supply and demand equation will prevail (eventually).

  • SweetDoug February 19, 2016 on 3:35 pm

    I’m glad you’re an optimist about the future. So am I. I don’t think we’ll hit 47% in 20 years, either. I think it’ll be 30 years. But we’ll go with 25%.

    What would 25% unemployment look like? I know! We’ve already had that back in the last century, in the 30’s.

    Take a look in the mirror: It’s all coming back.

    But lets think about driverless vehicles and all incarnations, wiping out the logistics sector in 10 years. If only we had someway of unloading the trucks, getting the parcels to the door?

    Hmm… I’d say to check out this bad boy, but they’re only building this robot for airplane manufacturing! Lucky us! No way they could modify him!

    Actually… I’m pretty sure some smarty-pants will be figurin’ that out fairly quick, since a dope like me can come up with the idea.

    Do you know what a rising unemployment rate of say 1-3% per year, would do to society?
    But society is likely to continue to demand the reassurance of having a pilot on board even if they are just reading their iPad most of the time.
    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
    No… No… They won’t. If you think I’m going to pay some union schmuck, full tiki/pension to not drive the driverless bus, “juz-in-case!’ that won’t be happening. And it’ll be the same with planes. They’ll have remote control. I hear it’s all the rage in these drones…

    I’m pretty sure they said the same thing about these ‘planes’ too.
    As a second example, the Oxford report gives a 94% chance for bicycle repairer to be automated. But it is likely to be very expensive and difficult to automate this job, and therefore uneconomic to do so.
    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
    Automation is about reducing human input as it’s primary function. This is deflationary in nature. I actually would be astonished to see a job of bicycle repairer to be done by a robot, but I’m not so sure anymore, as the bricklaying robot was amazing. Scared the @#$% out of my buddy. He’s a bricklayer.

    The increase in unemployed people looking for available jobs, will lead to deflationary pressures on all prices, especially wages.

    How will people buy stuff, when they have no jobs?
    We also need to consider all the new jobs that technology will create.

    it helps if you’re suitably educated so you can re-position yourself in one of these new industries.
    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
    Really? I’m usually just skilled to do the job I’m doing. I guess I’d better get a head start and take a guess at the job I’ll be doing after I’m sacked out? Given the reluctance of employers to train people, should I just figure that I’ll be kept on and retrained, or that they’ll just hire recently skilled people, much younger than myself?

    Ask yourself what other skills you have, if a big breakthrough in AI occurs and you’re suddenly ‘down sized’? Talk is cheap, eh?

    What are all those new jobs that are going to be there after all the old jobs are gone? It looks like the new jobs are going to be highly skilled, highly specific, and nobody’s not only talking about this, I don’t hear anyone talking about the ‘new jobs’ in the context of employment opportunities.
    Probably came off harsher than I wanted, but we’ve got start having a real, meaningful alert on what’s coming, not just ‘a conversation’.

    It’s like that little wave on the horizon, over in Indonesia a while back… “Get the camera!”

    And then?


  • DSM February 19, 2016 on 9:33 pm

    So we will all end up as middle level management with robots below us and corporate owners and their AGIs above us? But then what will the people in the third world, who we currently treat as robots, do?

    • almostvoid DSM February 20, 2016 on 1:57 am

      they can then work for their own societies instead of ours.

  • almostvoid February 20, 2016 on 1:56 am

    create jobs for lost hours? what is this? the 19th century? the people want leisure though given how some are so addicted to work it is frightening that they cannot cope with free time even when paid for. We wont need robots. Humans -all too many- want to enslave themselves. Just like that. This job I had and left several times had an interesting response from the consumer-zombie types: they’d whine: [about me leaving] but what are you going to do? They could not comprehend life after work. This can be a problem.

  • brianwsnyder February 20, 2016 on 5:54 am

    Exact numbers are always hard to predict but I believe some things are certain.

    AI will eliminate the need for most lawyers. Trial lawyers, who are really actors with a law degree, will still be needed. I think a computer will pass a bar exam in less than ten years, maybe even five.

    AI will not eliminate college professors but cut the number needed. AI will allow class sizes to be very, very large.
    Teachers for K-12 will still be needed because that job needs the personal touch (lots of feedback, empathy, caring and whatnot to soothe parents and make them think teachers care about your child’s education) to assist children in their learning process.

    Commercial vehicles that deliver our goods will be manned not by drivers but by an AVST [autonomous vehicle systems tech] who will require more advanced skills than what a CDL demands. The AVST will also have to act as a guard to make sure that truckload of food, medicine, or electronics is not stolen.

    Even though I listed only three professions, think of the effect if those three predictions come true. Think of all the jobs that are created to support lawyers, professors, and drivers. For example, autonomous vehicles – what happens to the auto insurance industry which is built almost entirely on the face that human error is responsible for more than 90% of accidents?

    …just my .02.

  • Quantium February 20, 2016 on 7:20 am

    Thinking outside the box:

    Possibly what we need to consider is the possibility of individuals acquiring machines that once acquired make wealth. One example is a cryptocurrency miner. Another is renewable energy equipment. Energy is a consumable, but it does cost wealth to obtain. At the moment this idea looks speculative, but it may not always be so.

    After all, it costs money to get a conventional job. You have to travel to possibly hundreds of interviews. Wear smart clothing. Possibly pay out a lot of money to move house. Once an earning machine is acquired, some of its earnings could be put aside to save up for another.

  • MickeyLong February 21, 2016 on 12:50 pm

    7 billion people projected to number 9 billion by 2050. Let’s start by allowing, not mandating, noticably disabled individuals from needed a job for housing, heat, medicine, and food. Next, do the same for people under 20 (keep them in school). Next, those over 68 ought not be forced to work for the same necessities. One mom or dad per family, too, ’till the kids are old enough.. This gets to about 30-40 of the population, and keeps the jobs for the rest of us.

    • DSM MickeyLong February 21, 2016 on 1:05 pm

      Sounds like Australia now, but it cost the nation something on the order of 30% of it’s entire tax income to achieve.

  • tomyoungjr February 22, 2016 on 7:27 am

    50% or 25% misses the point of the “alarmist” commentary. The issue is that a significant AND growing portion of the population will not be able to contribute economically to society to a point where they will be able to support their basic needs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.)

    The world only needs so many poets. Additionally, the disenfranchised lack the IQ and education to move up the curve to perform advanced knowledge work.

    Our social contract defined by out political system, tax code, schools, social norms, religion, etc. must be reviewed in this context. Very few people like to talk about this outside of casual chatter as it challenges strongly held beliefs and cultural norms. If we are not willing to adapt our social contract to the rapid advances in technology, my sense is that most future scenarios are dystopian.

    • Tim tomyoungjr February 22, 2016 on 9:47 am

      Well said! I tried to make a similar point but you did it far better.
      Posts like this, and the ensuing commentary, give me hope that some viral ideas could ripple outward to influence decision makers and thought leaders in other areas. Totally agree, failure to grasp the coming changes, and trying to stick to the old paradigms, could lead to some dystopian outcomes.

    • QuantumMechanic tomyoungjr February 25, 2016 on 11:52 am

      I agree completely. Arguments like the one put forth by Mr. Walsh are only comforting to those who find themselves endowed by fortune with the opportunity, aptitude, and health to be among the elite who can adapt to a rapidly changing technological world better than their peers. The punchline seems to be, “You don’t have to outrun the bear. Just outrun the guy next to you.”

      The human mind is an astounding marvel of evolution. Some have characterized it as the most complex structure in the known universe. Granted. But to those, like me, who see human capabilities not as the highest possible pinnacle of wisdom and intellect, but as as another step above those of our primate cousins, it appears inevitable that we will continue to be overtaken at an exponential rate by non-human, automated intelligence. At some point as yet unclear in the future, AIs will be able to do everything better than an unaugmented human. And at some point beyond that, the organic, human core of an augmented human will diminish in relative contribution to be essentially irrelevant.

      I don’t see any way around this, but then I don’t see that necessarily has to be a bad thing. People have been seeking, and sometimes finding, purpose for their lives for as far back as we have recorded history. Some find it in work, some in family and friends. Religions have laid claim to ultimate authority in defining purpose, but more and more people are now claiming that right for themselves. We don’t necessarily have to spend most of our days at jobs most of us don’t much like anyway, to have meaningful lives.

      In a world where productivity is increasing exponentially, we have a growing ability to see that everyone gets clean water, food, shelter, medicine, education, etc. In the US, we have turned away from the social policies that brought us unprecedented levels of growth and upward mobility in the middle class through the 1950’s and into the 60’s and reverted to policies that concentrate wealth more and more in the top fraction of 1 percent.

      We can continue on this path and deal with the rising misery and chaos that will come with the poverty brought on by increasing unemployment, or we can reassess our priorities as global societies. I think our best hope is to eventually institute a Guaranteed Basic Income for all as a replacement for most social programs.

  • horseshoe7 February 24, 2016 on 1:55 pm

    There ALREADY is > 30% “real” unemployment. .. the existing 5% unemployment number is a complete fabrication by the current administration, which is parroted by the lapdog media… taking all the millions who have “given up” looking for a job, and the millions under-employed, and the millions on disability, and the millions on welfare of one form or another, there are ALREADY about 100,000,000 working-age individuals who are not fully employed in the USA – and THAT is why Trump’s “tell it like it is” candidacy is upsetting the “traditional” “politically-correct” balance, which has swung so far to the left that no-one else on this forum understands the existing underlying reality of the already dire REAL unemployment situation (and why the 15,000,000+ illegals have all got to go)

    • DSM horseshoe7 February 24, 2016 on 2:02 pm

      Your “illegals” are your neo-slaves and until you have robots to pick your tomatoes you are going to have to live with your national hypocrisy or start paying a lot more for goods ands services that are currently subsidised by the fact that those neo-slaves are in a situation where they can be forced to work for far less than citizens would tolerate.

      Get rid of all your neo-slaves early and your farm business sector collapses under the pressure from imported food from regions where labour costs are lower, and don’t kid yourself that you can find millions of citizens to do the work because most of your “spares” are fat and lazy, or would rather live a life of crime than break their backs in the fields.

  • Matthew February 26, 2016 on 9:15 am

    such archaic reasoning in this article … we will need to create more jobs to fill in lost hours? dude… we don’t mill wheat anymore. and it’s not coming back. it doesn’t have to mean we’re entitled losers. it means we live in a better world. have you ever even heard of “universal basic income?” are you even aware of the “the great regression?” (the fact that wages are 1/3rd what they were in 1969 in real dollars today, they made $25 an hour back then).

    we need to CORRECT (not raise) our wages so we don’t have to work 3 jobs to make a living, and we need basic income. we already have this on a rudimentary level–welfare. but there is a culture of shame surrounding this which is really f-in unfortunate because, not only are people suffering when there is more wealth than ever, but soon we will all be in the same boat.

  • Matthew February 26, 2016 on 9:29 am

    maybe next time hire a 20 something yr-old to write this article. put your money where your mouth is and actually hire one of these people, instead of this 50 year established AI guy who doesn’t know the first thing about what it’s like coming up in the modern world, or even helpful/relevant facts for the issues we face. the only solutions I see are are, “don’t worry, something always fills the gap. become an umpire (wtf?), or scrounge up another hundred fifty thousand dollars to go back to school to become a geo scientist.” no facts about how we got into this situation or how we get out. not a peep about the fact that 52% of the biosphere has been destroyed in the past 40 years and how that affects ecocnomy. sure that 15% will totally offset the 47% (which puts us at 32% … not 25% so tired of hearing all these promises about oh yea 100 thousand jobs, 2 more percent of people wll be employed. $15 min wage. that is NOTHING. LITERALLY NOT EVEN HALF WAY THERE. we need to overhaul the system COMPLETELY. let me make it simple: human rights and sustainability are top priorities. not only is it ethical, those are the cornerstones of economic output (goods and services don’t happen without sustainable material resources and human rights).

  • Matthew February 26, 2016 on 9:38 am

    we need to correct (not raise, correct. wages fell. we’re not asking for anything new). we need basic income. we need to stop destroying the biosphere. and we need free education, food, clothing, shelter, and school. it is IMPERATIVE in the modern world now that we’re totally severed from our hunter/gatherer instincts in a completely artificial world. those things ARE basic human rights unlike half of our presidential electorate seems to think. and the irony is, those things generate GDP. that’s why all these other countries are somehow finding the money to do this stuff right. the rich stand to gain the most. something about people not suffering to death magically turns them into productive cogs in your plutocratic machine. stuff’s about to change, folks.

    • Matthew Matthew February 26, 2016 on 9:42 am

      it’s like watering a flower. just doesn’t happen without soil, water, and sunlight.

  • Matthew February 26, 2016 on 9:44 am

    this short sighted, we all need to be deprived of basic human rights so the aristocracy can survive, mentality needs to die. human rights and sustainability are good for GDP. going against these things is what’s destroying us.

  • shaker February 26, 2016 on 4:41 pm

    There is no such thing as unemployment. Anyone who wants to work, can work.
    All you have to do is work for less than a robot. Problem solved.
    The real problem is that people are not allowed to under bid robots because we have a minimum wage.
    We also need to continually have rising wages so as to create inflation. Why do we need inflation? its the only way our bogus FIAT currency, fractional reserve banking, debt based system can work.

    • Quantium shaker February 27, 2016 on 2:02 am

      Inflation is a penalty against saving. Investment can produce a yield after tax above inflation, but this isn’t easy to achieve and is not without risk.

      However it is one of the reasons socialists are against indefinite lifespan (ie an end to death by aging). Anyone can acquire a lot of wealth if they are willing to work for as long as it takes to build a portfolio that produces income independent from work. Even a “plain unskilled labourer” (if such job opportunities could still exist) could do it over a few hundred years putting aside a mere pittance each week.

      Imagine if the length vector was subject to inflation. If you measure off 100 yards of fencing wire this year, it will fence so much space. However if you measure off 100 yards of wire to repair the old fence once it has rusted in a few years time, you will find that it isn’t enough wire because of the inflation of length. Stupid isn’t it, but this is what inflation does with currency.

      For those socialists that consider savings to be a problem, it can be resolved with a constant value currency by having zero or negative interest rates, as are being considered at the present time. Of course there would always be investments, but the yield from investments is subject to risk so investors are legitimately being paid to take that risk. Presumably that is how the administrator of socialist or so called communist countries that have stock markets view it.

      • DSM Quantium February 27, 2016 on 2:07 am

        Just reinvesting the dividend after tax will, on scales of decades, grow geometrically.

        • Quantium DSM February 27, 2016 on 2:41 am

          An accountant friend of mine mentions the fact that businesses can go bust and stop paying dividends. Many small trusts created for charitable purposes by wills don’t last very long for this reason. Of course a live person making his own investments can make successful changes to his portfolio as long as gains tax penalties don’t make switching too expensive. Usually there is an annual allowance before the penalty is levied. It should be used every year or it is lost.

          • DSM Quantium February 27, 2016 on 12:09 pm

            Smart funds are distributed, the risks you describe do not exist, the only question is the loss of maximal growth by avoiding risk, all that aside what I said is true. Invest $10,000 when your child is born in such a fund and they will have a comfortable retirement.

  • John Nasbitt February 27, 2016 on 3:49 am

    Humans analyzing the impact of AI in the future evolution is like chimps analyzing human evolution. I don’t think we stand a chance unless we shut down the Internet, now!

  • smita1900 February 28, 2016 on 11:46 am

    Has the author read Rise of the Robots, which gives convincing arguments why jobs will be destroyed and are already vanishing? And what happens when AI starts making these decisions for us? AI has already spread into the cloud and is learning exponentially, Skynet like. The future is indeed near, better start preparing for it.

  • Scribblerlarry February 28, 2016 on 1:45 pm

    Our foolish notions that income MUST be tied to personal production forever and ever have to give way to the idea that individual income must become a function of national – eventually planetary – earnings.

    This is not a new system. Present day wealth is often derived from share ownership in corporations and corporate conglomerations. Most often those who own such shares are among the very wealthiest of humans. It is time that all members of our society obtained a birthright portion of shares in a multitude of corporations which would provide a suitable income, earned by those shares, for every individual from birth.

    In this way those nations which support and work to ensure corporate success will also be enhancing and securing the success of individuals who live in that society.