In a recent IEEE Techwise interview between Moshe Vardi, Professor of Computer Science at Rice University and interviewer Stephen Cherry, the future of human work in light of advancing robotic technology was discussed. The question: will humans have to compete with machines for jobs in the future?
Vardi is the author of a recent Atlantic Monthly article “The Consequences of Machine Intelligence” in which he describes the “inexorable progress of [Artificial Intelligence] over the past 50 years” and the likelihood of further advances between now and 2045. He notes Ray Kurzweil, founder of Singularity University, has predicted humans will become immortal by 2045, when they will be able to download their consciousness to computers. But others, such as Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy believe robotics, genetic engineering and nanotechnology are threatening to make humans an endangered species.
A Lack Of Discussion About Social Implications Of New Technology
Vardi points out that humans tend to discuss new technologies only after they have been widely adopted. Technological progress is ongoing without much discussion of implications for society, human health and the environment. For example, Americans adopted automobiles which, while improving mobility greatly, also led to pollution issues and permanently changed the way people interact. Opportunities to build subways instead of freeways were shelved under political pressure from oil companies and some manufacturers.
Vardi believes advances in robotics are moving along the same line with widespread research and development but not a lot of discussion about what it might mean for humans.
Vardi believes automation technology and software will lead to robots that can do nearly everything a human can do. If this turns out to be the case the vast majority of people will be out of work while engineers and scientists compete for the remaining “sweet spots.” Jobs that require human to human interaction like sales or some medical positions will remain but tollbooth collectors, checkout clerks, waiters and other service positions could be taken by robots.
John Maynard Keynes’s Take In 1930
Vardi concludes by saying these issues should be discussed by politicians, economists and the general public so major labor force issues can be minimized or eliminated. As early as 1930 John Maynard Keynes wrote, “the increase of technical efficiency has been taking place faster than we can deal with the problem of labor absorption.” This problem remains today. Keynes imagined that by 2030 most people would only work 15 hours a week, occupying themselves with leisure the rest of the time.
As 2045 is just a generation away, Vardi notes now is the time to begin discussing and analyzing potential consequences of advancing technology.