If you wanted relief from stories about tire factories and steel plants closing, you could try relaxing with a new 300-page report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BOA), which looks at the likely effects of a robot revolution.
However, you might not end up reassured. Though it promises robot carers for an aging population, it also forecasts huge numbers of jobs being wiped out: up to 35 percent of all workers in the UK and 47 percent of those in the US, including white-collar jobs, seeing their livelihoods taken away by machines.
Have not we heard all this before, though? From the luddites of the 19th century to print unions protesting in the 1980s about computers, there have always been people fearful about the march of mechanization. And yet we keep on creating new job categories.
However, there are still concerns that the combination of artificial intelligence (AI) — which is able to make logical inferences about its surroundings and experience — married to ever-improving robotics, would wipe away entire swaths of work and radically reshape society.
“The poster child for automation is agriculture,” says Calum Chace, author of Surviving AI and the novel Pandora’s Brain. “In 1900, 40 percent of the US labor force worked in agriculture. By 1960, the figure was a few percent. And yet people had jobs; the nature of the jobs had changed.
“But then again, there were 21 million horses in the US in 1900. By 1960, there were just 3 million. The difference was that humans have cognitive skills — we could learn to do new things. But that might not always be the case as machines get smarter and smarter.”
HORSES AND HUMANS
What if we are the horses to AI’s humans? To those who do not watch the industry closely, it is hard to see how quickly the combination of robotics and artificial intelligence is advancing.
Last week, a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) released a video showing a tiny drone flying through a lightly forested area at 48km per hour, avoiding the trees — all without a pilot, using only its onboard processors. Of course it can outrun a human-piloted one.
MIT has also built a “robot cheetah” which can jump over obstacles of up to 40cm without help. Add to that the standard progress of computing, where processing power doubles roughly every 18 months, and you can see why people like Chace are getting worried.
However, the incursion of AI into our daily life would not begin with robot cheetahs. In fact, it began long ago; the edge is thin, but the wedge is long. Cooking systems with vision processors can decide whether burgers are properly cooked. Restaurants can give customers access to tablets with the menu and let people choose without needing service staff.
Lawyers who used to slog through giant files for the “discovery” phase of a trial can turn it over to a computer. An “intelligent assistant” called Amy would, via e-mail, set up meetings autonomously. Google announced last week that you can get Gmail to write appropriate responses to incoming e-mails. (You still have to act on your responses, of course.)
Further afield, Foxconn, the Taiwanese company that assembles devices for Apple and others, aims to replace much of its workforce with automated systems.
The Associated Press gets news stories written automatically about sports and business by a system developed by Automated Insights. The longer you look, the more you find computers displacing simple work.
So how much impact would robotics and AI have on jobs, and on society? Carl Benedikt Frey, who with Michael Osborne in 2013 published the seminal paper The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation? — on which the BOA report draws heavily — says that he does not like to be labeled a “doomsday predictor.”
He said that even while some jobs are replaced, new ones spring up that focus more on services and interaction with and between people.
“The fastest-growing occupations in the past five years are all related to services,” he told the Observer. “The two biggest are Zumba instructor and personal trainer.”
Frey said that technology is leading to a rarification of leading-edge employment, where fewer and fewer people have the necessary skills to work in the front line of its advances.
“In the 1980s, 8.2 percent of the US work force were employed in new technologies introduced in that decade,” he said. “By the 1990s, it was 4.2 percent. For the 2000s, our estimate is that it is just 0.5 percent. That tells me that, on the one hand, the potential for automation is expanding — but also that technology does not create that many new jobs now compared to the past.”
This worries Chace.
“There will be people who own the AI and therefore own everything else,” he said. “Which means homo sapiens will be split into a handful of ‘gods’ and then the rest of us.
“I think our best hope going forward is figuring out how to live in an economy of radical abundance, where machines do all the work and we basically play,” he added.
Arguably, we might be part of the way there already; is a dance fitness program like Zumba anything more than adult play? However, as Chace said, a workless lifestyle also means “you have to think about a universal income” — a basic, unconditional level of state support.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that there has been so little examination of the social effects of AI. Frey and Osborne are contributing to Oxford University’s program on the future impacts of technology; at Cambridge, Observer columnist John Naughton and David Runciman are leading a project to map the social impacts of such change. However, technology moves fast; it is hard enough figuring out what happened in the past, let alone what the future would bring.
Some jobs probably would not be vulnerable. Does Frey, now 31, think that he would still have a job in 20 years’ time? There’s a brief laugh: “Yes.”
Academia, at least, looks safe for now — at least in the view of the academics.
On Sept. 27, 2002, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (East Timor) joined the UN to become its 191st member. Since then, two other nations have joined, Montenegro on June 28, 2006, and South Sudan on July 14, 2011. The combined total of the populations of these three nations is just more than half that of Taiwan’s 23.7 million people. East Timor has 1.3 million, Montenegro has slightly more than half a million and South Sudan has 10.9 million. They all are members of the UN, yet much more populous Taiwan is denied membership. Of the three, East Timor, as a Southeast Asian
Taiwan has for decades singlehandedly borne the brunt of a revanchist, ultra-nationalist China — until now. Ever since Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had the temerity to call for a transparent, international investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing has been turning the screws on Canberra. This has included unleashing aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomats to intimidate Australian policymakers, enacting punitive tariffs on its exports, and threatening an embargo on Chinese tourists and students to the nation. A tense situation became more serious on June 19 after Morrison revealed that a “sophisticated state-based actor” — read: China — had launched a
There have been media reports that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) plans to hold military exercises in August to simulate seizing the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島) in the South China Sea. In the past, only Coast Guard Administration (CGA) personnel have been stationed there, but the Ministry of National Defense has dispatched the Republic of China Marine Corps to the islands, nominally for “ex-situ training,” to prevent a Chinese attack under the guise of military drills. The move is only a temporary measure and not sufficiently proactive. Instead, the government should officially declare sovereignty over the islands and station troops
Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) is to be Taiwan’s next representative to the US. Hsiao is well versed in international affairs and Taiwan-US relations. In her days as a student in the US, she was a member of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA) and served as chief executive of the Democratic Progressive Party’s US mission. She is familiar with a broad spectrum of Taiwanese affairs in the US. FAPA hopes that Hsiao, after taking up her new post, would continue to deepen and normalize relations between Taiwan and the US, and that she would try to get a free-trade agreement