The robots aren’t coming.
Artificial intelligence and automation are changing the workplace and the way we tackle our jobs, but futurist Thomas Frey says new technologies aren’t about to put the country in the unemployment line.
First of all, “in general, we’re not really at a stage of artificial intelligence,” said Frey, founder of the DaVinci Institute, a Westminster-based think tank. “We’re more at a stage of augmented intelligence. That doesn’t mean that a lot isn’t going on there — there’s tons going on — but we’re a long ways from having to worry about robots taking over.
“Artificial intelligence is not automating entire jobs out of existence,” he added. “It’s automating tasks out of existence.”
That’s one of the big misconceptions people have about AI, Frey said.
“It’s real easy to kind of leapfrog the development and assume that we’re going to create robots that do everything. There’s this pervasive mindset about us versus them; us versus the AI; us versus the robots — and it’s really not going to be that way. It’s going to be us with them. That’s the big shift that we’re going to be going through.”
AI and automation will support human work and speed tasks, and that’s what will be the game-changer.
“It’s going to give us huge additional capability, so the amount of stuff we can accomplish in a lifetime is going to go up exponentially,” Frey said. “So by 2030, 2035, the average person will be accomplishing 10 times as much as the average person can today — and it’s just because we have all these additional capabilities. Then what happens is that the jobs themselves get redefined.”
Frey gives the example of a person employed reading electric meters: Sending the information wirelessly means the meter reader doesn’t need to travel from meter to meter anymore. But the job itself doesn’t go away, because meter readers do more than just read meters. Instead, the job is redefined and reworked, and other projects can be achieved.
In fact, AI is making astonishing advances possible — not necessarily by doing the projects, but by freeing up more time for more humans to focus on radical developments.
“When we have additional capabilities, we start setting our sights on bigger accomplishments, bigger things, bigger projects,” Frey said. “We’re seeing that happen all over the world now, where the type of projects that are getting taken on are just staggering — they’re just off-the-charts huge projects.”
Frey cites projects like a trillion-dollar-plus “gigaproject” in Saudi Arabia that aims to develop 10,038 square miles of desert into a city like Dubai; along with work on “outrageously far-fetched” developments like atmospheric energy harvesting.
“Things like that in the past were like, ‘Oh man, you’re an idiot — don’t even think about trying it.’ Now it actually seems quite doable,” he said. “The same goes with atmospheric water harvesters. … Just a few years ago that would’ve sounded like total nuts. But now these really outrageous projects are starting to gain traction because we can accomplish so much more in just a short period of time.
“I think this is just such a fascinating time to be alive because there’s so much interesting stuff happening,” Frey added. “But if I’m losing a job — if I’m losing my income stream — then it doesn’t seem so fascinating anymore.”
Plenty of people worry about that. One-third of respondents in a global survey of nearly 3,000 employees by The Workforce Institute at Kronos Incorporated were concerned that AI could one day replace them completely. And a Gallup analysis of 2013-2016 work and education poll data showed Millennials are most vulnerable, with 37 percent at high risk of their job being replaced by AI.
Frey says even he inadvertently contributed to visions of AI sending human workers to the scrap heap, when he “predicted that by 2030 over 2 billion jobs will disappear” in a talk at a TEDx conference.
“I get quoted on this in newspapers, magazines and TV stations literally all over the world — and it was not intended to be a doom or gloom prediction; it was never intended to say that we’re going to have 2 billion people unemployed in the world,” he said. “It was intended to be a wakeup call. It was intended to say that we’re going to have to create new jobs at a faster rate than ever before — and that’s essentially what we’ve got to do.
“I still get quoted on this, I’m the doom-and-gloom guy, but that’s not the way I look at the world. I actually think that we’re headed towards an era of super-employment. I think that we’re going to have more jobs than we can possibly manage in our lives, but the jobs themselves are not going to be full-time jobs. They’re going to be gigs.”
The problem, Frey said, is that as the world transitions into this “gig economy,” where companies move to hire specialized workers for specific tasks that might last hours or weeks or months, nobody is teaching workers how to be freelancers.
The most critical skill for the worker of the future is “learning to manage yourself as a business,” Frey said, and having the ability to pick up a variety of skills along the way.
But even in more traditional full-time jobs, AI has already made its mark.
A 2018 survey of 3,800 executives by Dell Technologies and Institute for the Future showed 82 percent expect their employees and machines to work as “integrated teams” within the next five years — and 26 percent said their workforce and machines already successfully work this way.
A Capgemini study of 1,000 organizations found that AI systems created new jobs in 80 percent of the companies where they were implemented.
And Frey thinks this is how it will play out.
“I talk a lot about how when we introduce a new piece of technology — like when we introduce a new aircraft into service — that aircraft needs a ground crew, it needs flight attendants, it needs people to sell tickets, it needs pilots and copilots, it needs a whole human staff in order to make it operational,” he said. “And that’s the way the technology’s going to be on all levels. So when we introduce a bunch of driverless cars we’re still going to need a ground crew. The same with drones, the same with 3D printers, the same with AI anything — we’re going to need the humans there to make it operational.”
The AI tools that are emerging will help people be better at their jobs, he said, and the smart thing to do is learn and understand those tools.
“As an example, if somebody is an artist today, the best thing that they can do is start learning the AI-enhanced tools that will make them become a better artist,” he said. “That’s the key thing. When we look at what jobs will still be around 20 years from now, we’re still going to have nurses, we’re still going to have accountants, we’ll very likely have bankers — but the tools they use are going to be vastly different.”