Artificial Intelligence: Will It Take Your Job?

Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” (Robert Oppenheimer, quoting the Bhagavad Gita following the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima)

Recently, my daughter shared details of her trip as an Amazon employee to Las Vegas to attend a tech conference. 8700 people from all over the world gathered there for the conference—its major theme, Artificial Intelligence.

And why not! Artificial Intelligence continues to multiply and accelerate its presence, foreshadowing a brave new world.

Robots today weld auto parts tirelessly.

Tomorrow’s world of driverless cars is imminent.

No more truck drivers.

Or taxi drivers either.

You get on your plane. It hasn’t a pilot.

You’re in the emergency room. Within minutes, a medical database yields every minuscule of medical counsel ever assembled relevant to your illness.

Your subsequent surgery is performed by a tireless robot with steady hand.

Legal counsel is dispensed through a database that’s uncovers every precedent and resolution.

No need to gamble recklessly on Wall Street. A handy software app latent with market prognostication is at your disposal.

Several months ago I read Martin Ford’s mesmerizing Rise of the Robots: Technology And the Threat of a Jobless Future. Selected as Business Book of the Year (2015), this is a book you shouldn’t miss, since it’s not a question of if, but when and how Artificial Intelligence (AI) will arbitrate our everyday world, sweeping into oblivion a ride range of jobs, not merely those of the unskilled or workers engaged in manufacturing (already a dying breed), but even those of highly skilled professionals, whose jobs have long been dubbed impervious to the economics of the marketplace or Wall Street tremors.

Ford is a guy mustering credibility, having twenty-five years of experience designing computers and creating software with prodigious expertise on the economic impacting of innovative technology on the marketplace (see his The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology, and the Economy of the Future).

But just what is Artifical Intelligence?

At the bottomlime, we’re talking about the ability of computers to perform tasks traditionally relegated to human beings. Remember world champion chess player Garry Kasparov, defeated by a supercomputer in 1997 in a six game match? Prior to the match, Kasparov had boasted, “l never lost in my life.”

We’ve seen technical innovation before and its fallout. Think agriculture and the impacting of mechanization and bio-technology. At the birth of our nation, with a 3 million population, 90% of us farmed. Today, with some 325 million, just 2% of us do. We got through that revolution because new jobs were created to which we could transition.

In our modern era, we’ve likewise welcomed technological innovation as a harbinger of jobs, frequently at high wages, just for the asking as in our auto and steel plants of the early 1950s.

But then came automation, insidiously gnawing at the fabric of middle class prosperity. You got greater production, yes, but with fewer workers across the board, a trend that’s accelerating.

Net result—the job market hasn’t been able to keep up with a growing work force as population increases, exacerbated still further by rising numbers of former employees joining the queue.

As Ford points out, our present economy needs to create a million new jobs annually just to keep up. Dismally, however, we’re currently running a ten million job deficit as of the first decade of our new century.

Up to now, college educated workers, a good number with advanced degrees and professional portfolios, haven’t felt threatened. As had been vouched many times, the fallout overwhelmingly impacted unskilled, poorly educated workers. Up to now, the axiom’s been, “Go to college and make your future!”, a truism no longer valid, given the volatility of today’s workplace.

As Ford astutely observes, “While lower-skill occupations will no doubt continue to be affected, a great many college-educated white-collar workers are going to discover that their jobs, too, are targeted for elimination as software automation and predictive algorithms advance rapidly in capability.”

Jobs even in medicine may go the way of the pick and shovel as radiologists, for example, find themselves outsmarted by robots scanning images in mega seconds. While today’s radiologists are highly skilled technicians requiring up to 13-years post-high school, they’ll fall by the wayside just like Kasparov in a relative few years.

Meanwhile, many lawyers and paralegals, in an already crowded profession, are discovering that software has replaced them. Corporations, formerly engaged in litigation, traditionally dedicated untold hours to turning-up internal documents establishing precedent, which then had to be shared with the opposing side as part of the discovery process. E-discovery software, however, can sift documents including emails, for relevancy in an eye blink.

In the business world, accountants have been moved to the margins. Today, for example, you and I can resort to software to do our own bookkeeping quickly and accurately.

As for taxes, I just insert my TurboTax CD into my computer drive and, bingo, I can get my return out in an hour max, file it electronically, Fed or State, and
pay taxes due or request a refund. Frosting on the cake, just $45 versus the $300 I shelled out last time I visited the local H & R Block.

Planning a career in journalism? Not so fast! Machines can now generate news stories using raw data with tools such as Quill platform. Research and correlation can be performed quickly, helping to eliminate fake news. (

How do you prepare your kids for such a world? The traditional resort has been getting a college degree, desirably in a STEM area, enhancing employment opportunity and long-term security.

If you think getting a degree in engineering or computer science can save you, think again. The number of graduates in those fields exceeds by 50% the number of jobs currently available, one big reason being the off-shoring of corporate computer needs. Call up Express Scripts as I’ve had to on several occasions recently and you get India.

Shockingly, some 50% of today’s college grads end up in jobs that really don’t call for a college degree. Many can’t find work at all and live at home with Mom and Dad.

Unemployment or under-employment is rampant among today’s college graduates, with up to 50% of students affected. Since fewer job opportunities exist, college graduates are increasingly showing-up in unskilled areas like sales or even fast-food restaurants, replacing non-graduates. All of us know such young people, perhaps even our own.

The one exception to all of this may be in health care, where a substantial need for physicians will exist to serve a growing population, among them the elderly. The problem is that many doctors shun the rural areas or family medicine. Today’s graduates prefer big bucks specialization, given the considerable expense incurred to get their M.D.

At the same time, problems remain in today’s health care industry. Many health job opportunities are in home care, comprising the largest portion of service jobs, replacing manufacturing as today’s leading employment sector. The sad truth is that home care workers currently average a paltry $20,000 a year, though this could change if the several entities comprising the service sector unionized.

Education, which has been largely immune to the newer trends imposed by AI, is undergoing transition, with online courses proliferating, reducing the need for professors and campus costs, etc.

As I write, I’m enrolled in an edX course, a consortium of elite institutions. I can tell you they’re first rate. Mine is from Harvard and for a small fee I can earn a certificate to up my resume. All of this is part of a burgeoning educational movement called MOOCs.

Their pragmatic success ultimately lies in whether employers will ultimately give them regard. They don’t replace degrees.

All of which may be moot. Short on revenue, an increasing number of universities are offering actual online degree programs as a way of increasing revenue, reducing overhead, and just plain keeping their heads above water, something that Ford doesn’t touch upon. If this catches on, America´s campuses will be severely impacted. With fewer students, you´ll have fewer faculty and administrators.

Case in point, I used to supplement my income by teaching courses on Saturdays, morning and afternoons, for twenty-one years at the local community college. When I started, I’d average nearly 30 per class. Then came the web and online courses, making it more convenient for students to study at home and on their own time. By the end of my tenure, I could barely get the ten student minimum. Ultimately, we cancelled afternoon sessions.

For the community college faculty at large, they shortly were opting to teach online classes to replace their own depleted campus courses. This led to replacing a good number of adjunct faculty, some with Ph. Ds like myself and needing these jobs far more than I did. I believe that digitalization of higher education will not only continue, but increase, conceivably becoming the norm.

“Virtually every industry in existence is likely to become less labor-intensive as new technology is assimilated into business models,” Ford writes.

Nationally, it will polarize us into fractious entities of haves and have nots, privileged and resentful. Our last election results mark only the opening round of this polarization and civic strife.

The pot boils over even more when you add the triple threat of global warming, diminished resources, and aging population to downward consumer spending.

How do you compete with robots anyway? They always show up for work, don’t take breaks, vacations or sick leaves, haven’t any need for a paycheck or retirement benefits, don’t unionize, and will work for you twenty-four hours a day without complaint.

Tesla has a new plant in Fremont, CA. 160 robots produce 400 cars a week. Hard to beat!

But there’s a good side to some of this. While low cost, off shore entities have drained our manufacturing sector into virtual extinction, a good many of these jobs are returning to us, simply because AI has sharply curtailed production costs.

For example, textile and apparel exports rose 37% just between 2009 and 2012, amounting to 23 billon (New York Times, 9/20/2013).

Yet what’s good for the goose isn’t good for the gander. Increasingly, even these returning jobs don’t need you and me!

Despite our recovery from the 2008 economy bust, most new jobs are low-paying service jobs, replacing millions of middle-class jobs wiped out in the fallout. Many of these jobs are in retail or fast food entities, subject to increasing automation in the future through robotics and self-servicing. Going to a $15 an hour minimum wage only speeds up the process.

Or let’s put it another way. In 1998, the U.S. business sector produced 194 billion hours of total labor. By 2013, the value of the business sector economy, adjusted for inflation, came to $3.5 trillion, or a 42% increase in output. By the same token, just 194 billion hours (the same as in 1998) were required to yield that increase.

In short, no job growth took place in the fifteen subsequent years, despite a 40 million increase in population!

Along these lines, Oxford researchers have projected that approximately 47% of current total employment, i. e., 64 million jobs, will potentially disappear through automation over the next decade or two.

Fewer job opportunities at meaningful wages can only exaggerate class alienation with a plutocracy of the wealthy, lessen consumer spending, and downgrade the quality of family life. Further, it poses a gargantuan challenge to a growing elderly population in a world of accelerating health costs, including for Medicare, along with declines in social security revenues and retirement provisions increasingly subject to corporate and state ransacking to reduce costs.

Ford thinks that in light of these sobering facts, we may need to resort to a basic, or guaranteed income, for everyone. Finland has already begun the experiment.

The money, of course, would have to come via an uprooting of our traditional way of taxation, perhaps much higher taxation of high income. Of course, the recently passed new Republican tax bill moves in the opposite direction in regard to corporate income and the 1% at the top owning most of the wealth. Out of necessity, we may resort to something like a value added tax.

As another way out, several states like California are considering tax measures affecting deep pocketed corporations implementing technology that replaces workers. If they accelerate profits by replacing workers with automation, then that profit residual will be taxed and redistributed to the needy.

Meanwhile, AI continues to advance prodigiously, with Silicon America committed to its imposition—ironically in a race among themselves (i.e., Google, Apple, and Amazon) as to who will get there first and best.

Ford says that AI is likewise proving indispensable to military intelligence and, ominously, to authoritarian regimes bent on controlling dissent through surveillance.

It’s even conceivable that our future, or at least that of the next generation, will feature a leap to AGI, or artificial general intelligence, i. e., computer intelligence dwarfing human intellect, with still further inner directed incremental advances enabling these machines to improve their capabilities, perhaps writing their own software, or implementing evolutional programming to enhance their design in what we might call recursive improvement. Ultimately, these machines would not only be smart, but get ever smarter.

Chillingly, we may be headed for “singularity,” a term borrowed from astrophysics to depict in its new context an artificial intelligence largess replacing humans. In fact, machines and man may even merge, fulfilling many a science fiction scenario.

In 2014, Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking wrote that the advent of AGI in which machines could think on their own “would be the biggest event in human history, machines capable of outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-maneuvering human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand.”

All of this in a world facing the exponential threat of global warming, increasing population, diminished earth resources, declining employment opportunity. Putting off dealing with climate change to meet our immediate needs will eventually serve only to exasperate the human crisis. Unfortunately, that’s the way things are breaking now.

So where do we go from here?

While Ford may give us the sobering details contributing to our demise, he’s wanting on long term solutions, save for looking seriously at a guaranteed base income, which of itself, only adumbrates our dystopian future.

Even here, he doesn’t assess how government at all levels can exact revenue, not only for a guaranteed income, but for other pervasive needs such as refurbishing infrastructure, combatting global warming, maintaining already costly entitlement outlays, etc., from an obviously declining tax base. Imposing high taxation on corporations and individuals can only go so far without potentially harmful reverberations.

We might have options. Take offshoring, for example. Ultimately, even these bastions of virtual immigration, India and China, are likely to face automation. Nevertheless, an estimated 130 million of the smartest of the smartest will remain with the help of AI tools to perform informational tasks for Western firms at reduced cost. That is, unless we take restrictive measures.

The social-political implications of artificial intelligence are staggering. As Arend Hintz, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at Michigan State University comments, “In our current system, automation pushes people out of jobs, making the people who own the machines richer and everyone else poorer.” (Scientific American, July !4, 2017).

Again, it doesn’t suffice to exfoliate on the emerging social displacement via a barrage of stats without exploring preventative measures to offset the monopoly of artificial intelligence by a relative few controlling production to the demise of the many.

In short, can democracy survive in tomorrow’s world?

Then too, experts have shared their plausible anxieties as to potential malevolent applications of this technology, given human history and the misuse of power.

If artificial intelligence is itself a by-product of human induced evolution, can we impute a capacity for the ethical in this machinery destined to replace human cognition? We might then get a level playing field.

Even then, this implies cooperation among all earth’s people, something that would surely be an anomaly when the United Nations hasn’t succeeded in accomplishing this. What could happen is simply, and dreadfully, machines in the image of man warring on one another.

When you come down to it, the problem isn’t really artificial intelligence, but what humans might do with it.

But whatever. If you can bring yourself to read this book without being pummeled into depression, then this book is for you, enlightening as it is sobering.

I suggest you read it twice.

About RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.
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