The possibility of artificially intelligent systems replacing much of modern manual labour is perhaps a more credible near-future possibility.While AI won’t replace all jobs, what seems to be certain is that AI will change the nature of work, with the only question being how rapidly and how profoundly automation will alter the workplace.
There is barely a field of human endeavour that AI doesn’t have the potential to impact. As AI expert Andrew Ng puts it: “many people are doing routine, repetitive jobs. Unfortunately, technology is especially good at automating routine, repetitive work”, saying he sees a “significant risk of technological unemployment over the next few decades”.
The evidence of which jobs will be supplanted is starting to emerge. There are now 27 Amazon Go stores and cashier-free supermarkets where customers just take items from the shelves and walk out in the US. What this means for the more than three million people in the US who work as cashiers remains to be seen. Amazon again is leading the way in using robots to improve efficiency inside its warehouses.
These robots carry shelves of products to human pickers who select items to be sent out. Amazon has more than 200 000 bots in its fulfilment centers, with plans to add more. But Amazon also stresses that as the number of bots has grown, so has the number of human workers in these warehouses. However, Amazon and small robotics firms are working on automating the remaining manual jobs in the warehouse, so it’s not a given that manual and robotic labor will continue to grow hand-in-hand.
Fully autonomous self-driving vehicles aren’t a reality yet, but by some predictions, the self-driving trucking industry alone is poised to take over 1.7 million jobs in the next decade, even without considering the impact on couriers and taxi drivers.
Yet, some of the easiest jobs to automate won’t even require robotics. At present, there are millions of people working in administration, entering and copying data between systems, chasing and booking appointments for companies as software gets better at automatically updating systems and flagging the important information, so the need for administrators will fall.
As with every technological shift, new jobs will be created to replace those lost. However, what’s uncertain is whether these new roles will be created rapidly enough to offer employment to those displaced and whether the newly unemployed will have the necessary skills or temperament to fill these emerging roles.
Not everyone is a pessimist. For some, AI is a technology that will augment rather than replace workers. Not only that, but they argue there will be a commercial imperative to not replace people outright, as an AI-assisted worker — think a human concierge with an AR headset that tells them exactly what a client wants before they ask for it — will be more productive or effective than an AI working on its own.
There’s a broad range of opinions about how quickly artificially intelligent systems will surpass human capabilities among AI experts.
Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute asked several hundred machine-learning experts to predict AI capabilities over the coming decades.
Notable dates included AI writing essays that could pass for being written by a human by 2026, truck drivers being made redundant by 2027, AI surpassing human capabilities in retail by 2031, writing a best-seller by 2049, and doing a surgeon’s work by 2053.
They estimated there was a relatively high chance that AI beats humans at all tasks within 45 years and automates all human jobs within 120 years.