The threat that recent advances in job automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) represent for human workers is becoming more and more relevant in the economic and social debate.
CEOs like John Cryan of Deutsche Bank clearly state that robots can replace thousands of workers. In two different interviews, Cryan said that “in our banks, we have people behaving like robots doing mechanical things. Tomorrow we’re going to have robots behaving like people” and that “we’re too manual, which can make you error-prone and it makes you inefficient. There’s a lot of machine learning and mechanisation that we can do”.
Job losses triggered by technological innovation can have terrible social implications. Indeed, employment characterised by low wages, few benefits and high turnover rates, has provided for a kind of safety net for unskilled workers who have few other available options. In fact, these jobs traditionally offer an income of last resort when no better alternatives are accessible. Unfortunately, as robotics and advanced self-service technologies are increasingly deployed across nearly every sector of the economy, their continuous rise will primarily threaten lower-wage jobs that require a modest level of education and training. Subsequently, machines will try to compete with high-skill jobs as well, putting high-pay personnel at risk in the same way.
In recent years, many forums and seminars have been organised to discuss this issue. The re-alignment of the education system towards the skills that will presumably be required in the job market of the future is currently considered a solution. One assumes that the skills needed by future workers to succeed in the battle against machines will be different from the ones that make robots more proficient than humans (i.e. computation, inference and data mining).
Why This Time It’s Different
One of the lessons that history has taught us is that economic development is supported, if not caused, by technological innovation. Sometimes, innovation is so disruptive that it transforms not only production systems but also communities’ social structures; in other words, it can trigger an “industrial revolution”. What is happening today – as a consequence of advances in robotics and AI – is considered the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”.
The previous three industrial revolutions were characterised by a shift in the occupational structure of the labour market: from agriculture and handcraft boutiques to manufacturing and clerking, to services and management positions. The current one, which seeks to economise the use of labour through AI, machine learning and automation is actually outrunning the pace at which society can find alternative uses for labour. In brief, many more jobs are likely to be automated before the labour market is able to create replacement jobs.
While computerisation has historically been bounded into the domains of routine tasks, technological advances show that automation is likely to threaten not only mundane jobs, but also jobs featured by non-routine tasks.
As a matter of fact, if someone can learn to do a job by studying a detailed record of everything done in the past; or if someone can become proficient by simply repeating the tasks already completed, then there is a good chance that someday an algorithm might be able to learn to do much, or all, of that job. Furthermore, one cannot exclude that in the next decades some additional disruptive innovations will be introduced that could further accelerate the current replacement trend, especially if one considers quantum computers and their increasingly higher calculation capabilities.
A Call for Human Skills
In light of this, it seems clear that something must be changed in terms of the skills workers develop. However, in a world where automation is likely to absorb more and more jobs, what are the skills that will eventually prevent people from being replaced by machines?
In academia, there is a consensus around the tasks that machines will be unlikely to properly manage in the next two or three decades:
- Perception and manipulation tasks (e.g. finger dexterity, manual dexterity, mobility in cramped work space and awkward positions): despite the advances in terms of sensors and prehensile abilities, machines still struggle to identify objects in a cluttered field of view and to move in unstructured working environment.
- Creative intelligence tasks (e.g. originality, fine arts): creativity can be defined as a process that involves imagination or original ideas to produce something novel and valuable.
- Social intelligence tasks (e.g. social perceptiveness, negotiation, persuasion, assisting and caring for others): they involve the understanding of human needs, behaviours and emotions. Robots are expected to fail in these tasks in the next decades as well since human beings have a ‘common sense’ of information that is difficult to articulate in algorithms.
In addition, the human mind can identify causal relationships between two or more phenomena, while machines reason in terms of correlation. As such, the next generation of workers ought to enter the job market with the above-mentioned competencies, thus education and training must shift its focus towards them.
A Return to the Past?
But how shall education change in order to prevent new college graduates from being doomed to relatively unskilled jobs and future unemployment? First of all, by taking a route that is counterintuitive if we consider the current emphasis put on Information Technology, Math and Statistics. Education shall likely rediscover arts, humanities and social sciences because these are the academic disciplines that provide students with those creative, critical and problem-solving skills that really distinguish a human person from any kind of algorithm.
In fact, the study of these disciplines implies the development of skills such as speaking, writing, interpreting, relativising, comparing, distinguishing, telling the durable from the fleeting, clearly identifying different facts and understanding beauty, freedom, diversity and harmony. Finally, as all other ‘sciences’, those disciplines require observation, comparison, systematisation, inference and forecasting.
These assumptions are furtherly supported by the report “The Future of Jobs” issued by the World Economic Forum in 2016, which illustrates the 10 principal skills that will be required in 2020.
Source: World Economic Forum
Secondly, flexibility can be considered one of the keys for facing the reduction of jobs that machines are expected to bring. This is because the content of jobs is changing as fast as technology advances; therefore if education is focused on teaching students those skills that are unlikely to be mirrored by algorithms, then forthcoming workers will gain the flexibility to fit to new job contents. In brief, future workers shall be more concerned about having the skills required at work, rather than their qualifications. At the same time, employers shall succeed in identifying their employees’ real skills, irrespective of their formal qualifications, and adapt job content accordingly.
Finally, education systems shall include at least basic programming or coding courses in their subjects portfolio. In the coming decades, one can expect that the usage of machines and algorithms will be more frequent and relevant than today. Therefore, public and private institutions shall consider enabling all kind of workers (not only engineers) to directly communicate with machines by using programming languages.
Indeed, knowledge of machine language will allow individuals to understand the logic behind a machine’s algorithm; and consequently to control the machine by directly typing commands, rather than being completely dependent on the output of its ironclad algorithm.
The Future Ahead
The current industrial revolution led by robots and AI threatens the future of work for individuals. Compared to previous industrial revolutions, this one is not presenting the “creative destruction” phenomenon mentioned by Schumpeter (i.e. a cyclical process where technology destroys jobs but at the same time creates new ones). This time, the number of jobs that are being automated is higher than the ones created.
One of the possible solutions is to provide individuals with those skills that AI and machines cannot mirror, namely: creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, communication and empathy. These skills are prerogatives of disciplines called “humanities” that have been disregarded in the recent past in favour of engineering, computer science and math. Finally, these skills shall be supported by programming and coding competencies in order to enable individuals to directly control machines and software.
In other words, humanity will focus on those disciplines that put mankind at the centre of everything. As a matter of fact, to save human jobs we shall rediscover the skills that differentiate individuals from machines, and make human workers irreplaceable by any algorithm.
Breakfast Briefing: Space Race, Google in China and Zuckerberg
Google to Open in Beijing
Alphabet announced that it will open an AI research facility in the Chinese capital yesterday.
Editor’s Remarks: Under CEO Sundar Pichai, Google has been recommitting itself to China after it had most of its services blocked in 2010 when it refused to censor search content. In recent months, the tech giant has been marketing its new TensorFlow AI tools to the Chinese market, which aligns with the state’s ambitions to become a world leader in AI by 2030. Google’s new facility will consist of a small number of AI researchers, supported by hundreds of Chinese engineers. Google expects to face stiff competition for talent given how local tech giants, Baidu and Tencent, are ramping up their own AI efforts.
Telegram Is Not for Sale
Telegram’s elusive founder, Pavel Durov, insists that his messaging service will remain non-profit.
Editor’s Remarks: Durov and his brother Nikolai founded VK, Russia’s answer to Facebook, before they were forced to sell their stakes to a Kremlin-friendly oligarch. The pair has since relocated and built Telegram, an encrypted messaging service that they insist will never be sold. A libertarian – having enabled Telegram users to even send messages that will self-destruct – Durov and his product have gained popularity among cryptocurrency enthusiasts. Durov himself is bullish about the prospects of cryptocurrencies and owns at least 2,000 bitcoins. Pundits, meanwhile, reckon that Telegram is worth in the region of $5bn.
Japanese Space Startup Raises $90m
Ispace Inc raised $90m from Japan’s largest corporates in a bid to reach orbit by 2019.
Editor’s Remarks: Ispace is backed by Japan Airlines, Tokyo Broadcasting System Holdings and also government-backed Innovation Network Corp. of Japan. The company plans to sell advertising space on its spacecraft, which will then feature prominently in distributed images. However, Ispace also envisages the use of rovers that will offer a “projection mapping service”, which will essentially produce a tiny billboard on the surface of the moon. This is the latest announcement in what is rapidly shaping up to be a wider commercialisation of space exploration. Elsewhere, SpaceX and Blue Origin are developing reusable rockets, while Planetary Resources intends to mine asteroids.
Roy Moore Loses Alabama
Moore, who was backed by Trump, narrowly lost to Doug Jones, a largely unknown Democrat.
Editor’s Remarks: Moore’s election efforts appeared to have succumbed to allegations of child abuse that were made against him last week. Newcomer Jones won 49.9% of the vote against Moore’s 48.4% in deeply conservative Alabama, marking the Democrats’ first Senate victory in the state since 1992. Moore is a household name in Alabama but the accusations recently levelled against him have ruined his once impeccable reputation. Reluctant to concede defeat in his home state, Moore has said that Alabama must “wait on God and let the process play out”. Meanwhile, Democrats are jubilant that they have managed to reduce the Republican majority in the Senate to 51-49, which could impact Trump’s tax reform.
Zuckerberg Backs VR Firm
Dreamscape Immersive, a virtual reality (VR) company, is backed by 21st Century Fox, Warner Bros. and Mark Zuckerberg.
Editor’s Remarks: Dreamscape is developing new VR arcades for shopping centres and has just closed a $30m Series B funding round – 50% more than planned. Among its initial backers were Steven Spielberg, 21st Century Fox and Warner Bros. The company has now added to that impressive list the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Nickelodeon. Dreamscape is capitalising on Hollywood’s interest in VR, which the film industry reckons will draw in greater numbers of viewers and provide an opportunity to raise margins. Dreamscape intends to open seven VR centres in locations across North America and the UK.
Google to Open Artificial Intelligence Centre in China
Google will be opening its first artificial intelligence (AI) research centre in China, despite many of its services being blocked there.
Fei-Fei Li, Chief Scientist of Google Cloud, said:
“I believe AI and its benefits have no borders. Whether a breakthrough occurs in Silicon Valley, Beijing or anywhere else, it has the potential to make everyone’s life better for the entire world. As an AI first company, this is an important part of our collective mission. And we want to work with the best AI talent, wherever that talent is, to achieve it.”
The research centre will focus on basic AI research, and will consist of a team in Beijing, who will be supported by Google China’s engineering teams.
Google’s search engine and its Gmail are banned in China. However, the country has 730 million internet users, making the market too large to ignore.
Google is not the only tech giant facing restrictions in China. Facebook is also banned, while Apple’ App Store has been subject to censorship. In order to comply with government requests, Apple removed many popular messaging and virtual private network (VPN) apps from its App Store in China earlier on this year.
China has recently announced plans to develop artificial intelligence, and wants to catch up with the US. However, human rights groups are concerned by China’s use of artificial intelligence to monitor its own citizens.
Europe Warns Trump on Tax
Finance ministers from Europe’s largest economies have said that Trump’s tax plans breach global agreements.
Europe’s leading finance ministers, including UK chancellor Philip Hammond, penned a letter to the White House in which they raised the possibility of retaliation if the Republicans push on with their tax reforms. Europe is worried that Trump’s “America First” doctrine will undermine global trade patterns and escalate ongoing tensions between the US and its key allies. With the UK looking to its closest ally for support post-Brexit, it is unlikely that Hammond’s latest move will sweeten any future US-UK trade deal. Meanwhile, Trump is unlikely to care about shaking up current trading arrangements, given that he ran for office on the platform of making the US more competitive.
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