How Artificial Intelligence Can Define Not Destroy the Future of Work

Work is a defining feature of our civilisation. We spend more time in our jobs than any other activity and the spoils of our labour provide us the means to survive. It gives identify, status and purpose.

So we can be forgiven if we get nervous when our jobs are threatened. And there has never been a clearer threat than increasing automation through robotics and Artificial intelligence (AI).

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I am of the camp that ultimately, in about 15 years time, we will all be far better off, our notion of work evolved and with it our lives. Yet the transition up to that point is going to be very harsh for most, leaving plenty scars of inequality and alienation on our society.

Talk of universal basic income, the taxation of robot output and a demotion of human capital to that of mere data suppliers is real. How our innovators introduce the coming disruption will shape its impact. How we manage this transition as a people will define us all.

Where artificial intelligence is better than us

Eventually everything given enough progress and time.

But in the nearer term computers surpass us in tasks involving collecting information, structuring and digesting huge amounts of it quickly, understanding the correlations within, surfacing probabilities and optimising for results.

Jobs most vulnerable are ones where the information analysis above is done repeatably and with little variation. Lawyers drafting contracts, accountants doing tax returns, travel agents planning holidays, IT staff running security checks, marketers buying ad spots, radiologists examining X-rays, journalists reporting news, etc.

Humans won’t be able to compete with the speed, efficiency and scale at which their computer counterparts will deliver.

Robots have already proven themselves masters of the assembly line and will continue to move up the chain yet at a slower pace than their pure-software brethren.

Jobs at risk range from monitoring power lines, securing borders, farming crops, mining, driving taxis, trucking or shipping goods, etc. Autonomous drones and vehicles will win us over with pinpoint accuracy, 24/7 reliability, enhanced functionality and safety.

Underlying it all is cost. Automated systems whether hardware or software will just beat humans to the bottom line to the point where including a person would be equivalent to holding onto your telephone operator to direct your phone calls.

Where we are better than artificial intelligence

Areas that are highly complex for artificial intelligence and robotics to gain a medium term edge on revolve around unique human-to-human interactions.

Things like knowing when not to speak, listening with empathy, exchanging a look or a smile or delivering a well executed joke.

These strengths and the freeing up of labour from other industries could result in economies shifting greater monetary value to historically undervalued work, such as social services, aged care, volunteering and child development – relative to the value it brings to society, and which cannot be easily automated.

This article was originally published by the Australian Financial Review.

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