As Silicon Valley continues to aggressively push the technological envelope – tinkering with self-driving cars, delivery drones and intelligent digital agents – the separation between 'human' jobs 'robotic' ones is getting blurry. Almost daily, artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated allowing robotic devices to take over more of the tasks once reserved for humans.
Is this shift good or bad? Will we, as Elon Musk fears, become the "biological boot loader for digital superintelligence" or are we headed in the direction of a blissed-out, evolved utopia where grunt work is eliminated for the betterment of all?
The Pew Research Center tackled this thorny – but pertinent -- question by asking technology builders and analysts, among others, whether they believe networked, automated, artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices will have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025.
Out of the 1,896 experts who responded, there was a general consensus: AI will have a significant impact on the way we work in 2025.
Whether that impact will be positive or negative, however? That's still up for debate, with respondents split nearly down the middle: Forty-eight percent believe robots and digital agents will eliminate many blue-collar and white-collar jobs, creating deep fissures in the social order as income inequality and the unemployment rate increase. The other 52 percent aren't so gloomy, generally believing that while technology may displace many jobs currently performed by humans, it will also create new ones. In other words, society will not splinter but evolve.
Here are a range of predictions on how artificial intelligence and robotic devices will have impacted the way we work by 2025.
Eliminate some jobs, but create new ones. “When the world population was a few hundred million people there were hundreds of millions of jobs. Although there have always been unemployed people, when we reached a few billion people there were billions of jobs. There is no shortage of things that need to be done and that will not change.” -- Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher for Microsoft
Related: Google Gets Serious About Robots
“My observation of advances in automation has been that they change jobs, but they don’t reduce them. A car that can guide itself on a striped street has more difficulty with an unstriped street, for example, and any automated system can handle events that it is designed for, but not events (such as a child chasing a ball into a street) for which it is not designed. Yes, I expect a lot of change. I don't think the human race can retire en masse by 2025.” -- Fred Baker, longtime leader in the IETF and Cisco Systems Fellow
Kill entire industries, but also create new ones. “Journalists lost their jobs because of changes to advertising, professors are threatened by MOOCs, and store salespeople are losing jobs to Internet sales people. Improved user interfaces, electronic delivery (videos, music, etc.), and more self-reliant customers reduce job needs. At the same time someone is building new websites, managing corporate social media plans, creating new products, etc. Improved user interfaces, novel services, and fresh ideas will create more jobs.” -- Ben Shneiderman, professor of computer science at the University of Maryland
Not have a huge impact (we're only talking 10 years from now, after all). “I think AI will do a few more things, but people are going to be surprised how limited it is. There will be greater differentiation between what AI does and what humans do, but also much more realization that AI will not be able to engage the critical tasks that humans do.” -- Michael Glassman, associate professor at the Ohio State University
“The vast majority of the population will be untouched by these technologies for the foreseeable future. AI and robotics will be a niche, with a few leading applications such as banking, retailing, and transport. The risks of error and the imputation of liability remain major constraints to the application of these technologies to the ordinary landscape.” -- Christopher Wilkinson, a retired European Union official, board member for EURid.eu, and Internet Society leader
Displace a large percentage of workers. “Automation is Voldemort: the terrifying force nobody is willing to name. Oh sure, we talk about it now and then, but usually in passing. We hardly dwell on the fact that someone trying to pick a career path that is not likely to be automated will have a very hard time making that choice. X-ray technician? Outsourced already, and automation in progress. The race between automation and human work is won by automation, and as long as we need fiat currency to pay the rent/mortgage, humans will fall out of the system in droves as this shift takes place…The safe zones are services that require local human effort (gardening, painting, babysitting), distant human effort (editing, coaching, coordinating), and high-level thinking/relationship building. Everything else falls in the target-rich environment of automation.” -- Jerry Michalski, founder of REX, the Relationship Economy eXpedition
“Previous technological revolutions happened much more slowly, so people had longer to retrain, and [also] moved people from one kind of unskilled work to another. Robots and AI threaten to make even some kinds of skilled work obsolete (e.g., legal clerks). This will displace people into service roles, and the income gap between skilled workers whose jobs cannot be automated and everyone else will widen. This is a recipe for instability.” -- Tom Standage, digital editor for The Economist
Increase income inequality. “Robots and AI will increasingly replace routine kinds of work—even the complex routines performed by artisans, factory workers, lawyers, and accountants. There will be a labor market in the service sector for non-routine tasks that can be performed interchangeably by just about anyone—and these will not pay a living wage—and there will be some new opportunities created for complex non-routine work, but the gains at this top of the labor market will not be offset by losses in the middle and gains of terrible jobs at the bottom. I’m not sure that jobs will disappear altogether, though that seems possible, but the jobs that are left will be lower paying and less secure than those that exist now. The middle is moving to the bottom.” -- Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society
Decrease drudgery, increase leisure. “If ‘displace more jobs’ means ‘eliminate dull, repetitive, and unpleasant work,’ the answer would be yes. How unhappy are you that your dishwasher has replaced washing dishes by hand, your washing machine has displaced washing clothes by hand, or your vacuum cleaner has replaced hand cleaning? My guess is this ‘job displacement’ has been very welcome, as will the ‘job displacement’ that will occur over the next 10 years. The work week has fallen from 70 hours a week to about 37 hours now, and I expect that it will continue to fall. This is a good thing. Everyone wants more jobs and less work. Robots of various forms will result in less work, but the conventional work week will decrease, so there will be the same number of jobs (adjusted for demographics, of course). This is what has been going on for the last 300 years so I see no reason that it will stop in the decade.” -- Hal Varian, chief economist for Google
Create pushback, leading to an increase in small-scale, handmade or artisanal modes of production. “The real change will not be the stereotypical model of ‘technological unemployment,’ with robots displacing workers in the factories, but increased employment in small shops, increased project-based work on the construction industry model, and increased provisioning in the informal and household economies and production for gift, sharing, and barter.” --- Kevin Carson, a senior fellow at the Center for a Stateless Society and contributor to the P2P Foundation blog
"I anticipate that there will be a backlash and we’ll see a continued growth of artisanal products and small-scale [efforts], done myself or with a small group of others, that reject robotics and digital technology.” -- Tony Siesfeld, director of the Monitor Institute