Robots Might Eat Your Job, But Being Human Could Get You A New One

Robots and artificial intelligence software could eventually render human workers obsolete in virtually every industry, but that shift will likely take at least 30 to 50 years to play out.

In the meantime, it’s important to focus on properly preparing people for the jobs that will be available over the next decade or so, and finding a way for everyone to be able to benefit from the gains in economic productivity and wealth generation spurred by technological advances.

At least, that’s what MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson prescribes. He’s the director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and a co-author of the book “The Second Machine Age.” On Thursday, he gave a talk entitled “Will Robots Eat Your Job?” at LearnLaunch’s “Across Boundaries,” an annual educational technology conference in Boston.

The short answer is yes. “There are some legitimate concerns” around machines continuing to gain new capabilities that enable them to take over a lot of jobs currently handled by humans, Brynjolfsson (pictured above) said. Automation has been transforming factories for years. But now, with advances in artificial intelligence technologies, automation is starting to also creep into fields that require less repetitive manual labor and perhaps seemed immune to this shift, such as law, healthcare, and journalism.

“Machines are getting a lot better at many of these things,” Brynjolfsson said. “This a challenge we’re going to have to face, but I don’t think it’s a problem we have to face today.”

That’s where he pushes back a little on high-profile tech executives such as Bill Gates and Elon Musk, who in recent years have voiced concerns about the potential negative consequences of advances in A.I.

“I disagree with Elon and Bill bringing it up too aggressively,” he said. “It can be counterproductive to overestimate what machines can do right now. There’s no shortage of work that can be done [only by humans] in the next 10 to 15 years.”

He points to jobs in education and improving the environment, for example.

The key, he argued, is educational institutions should focus instruction on areas where humans still have the advantage over machines. The examples he gave are mostly intangible characteristics and interpersonal skills: creativity, empathy, teamwork, planning, problem solving, leadership, and so on.

“If we do that, I think we’ll have more people prepared to work alongside machines,” Brynjolfsson said. “Machines can help with a lot of that as well. There are educational technologies that can help identify the relative strengths and weaknesses of students and personalize things.”

Brynjolfsson is certain that “we will get to a world where machines can do almost everything.” If handled in the right way, that “should be one of the best things that has happened to humanity,” he said, because it will mean more time for leisure, for example.

But it will require massive changes in how society operates. For one, Brynjolfsson thinks it could be essential for governments to institute universal basic income or related programs so that people can sustain themselves.

For now, Brynjolfsson wants to see leaders put more energy into solving more immediate issues, such as ensuring a skilled workforce and addressing stagnating wages.

“This is the biggest challenge our society perhaps has ever faced, is the way technology is fundamentally changing the nature of labor, work, and the economy,” Brynjolfsson said. “The most important thing we can do to address that is reinvent education and invest more in education.”

Jeff Engel is a senior editor at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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