John McDermott: Can robots replace human functions?

When people talk of robots replacing human workforce, it sounds like a very distant and nearly impossible scenario.

But what if it happens in the near future?, asks John McDermott.

Soon it might be robots that write articles about the future.

If the boldest predictions made about technology turn out to be true, humans like you would still read stories but humans like me would not research, analyse, interview, transcribe, scribble, plan, draft, edit, rewrite, subedit and dispatch.

Artificial intelligence will have rendered the inadequacy of my intelligence all too real.

Narrative Science wants to make this happen as quickly as possible.

The Chicago-based company’s algorithms are already used to preview companies’ quarterly earnings and report on sports games.

It is a huge leap from writing pithy accounts of data-rich occurrences to penning more complex articles.

But Narrative Science is thinking big; it is one of many businesses aiming to make obsolete even the more cognitive of professional jobs.

The idea that smart machines could displace much of the human workforce sounds like a prospect from science fiction.

And yet science fiction is not fantasy. Visiting the World’s Fair in Queens, in 1964, the author Isaac Asimov speculated what the world would look like in half a century. Reflecting on the jamboree, Asimov said  “much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with ‘Robot-brains’”; “communications will become sight-sound”; and that “mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders.”

In “The Second Machine Age,” a hotly debated new book, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, begin almost where Asimov’s predictions end. The doyen of sci-fi forecast that for all the innovations of the second half of the 20th century, “Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.”

Is your job safe?

“The Future of Employment,” a paper published in September by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne say that the displacement process will soon encompass nonroutine jobs.

The Oxford academics say that 47 percent of jobs in the U.S. are at “high risk” of computerisation in the next two decades.

Jobs classified as “high risk” include: credit analysts, cooks, geological technicians, crane operators, chauffeurs, cartographers, real estate agents, baggage porters and, ironically, semiconductor processors.

Writers should be OK, apparently, having the same odds of replacement as veterinarians.

Is your job safe?

If it is a mostly manual job, there is a lower chance of it being replaced by a computer in the next 20 years if it requires “perception and manipulation” skills.

Plumbers visit hundreds of houses in a single year, each requiring unique, highly detailed work. Baxter would struggle. Yet, wholesale workers, for example, are in trouble.

Companies such as Amazon design their warehouses large, wide and predictable for robots a bit like Baxter.

Jobs at low risk include: psychologists, curators, personal trainers, archaeologists, marketers, public relations, most engineers, surgeons and fashion designers.

Nevertheless, some soothsayers predict that this time is different.

Technologists such as Martin Ford and economists such as Robert Hanson argue that as machines become smarter, the less opportunity there is for humans to complement them.

They contest that once the upfront cost of a robot is met, it works for free; there is no wage low enough that a human could offer the boss.

In “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” (1930), John Maynard Keynes worried about the short-term effects of this dynamic but ultimately though it meant progress toward a richer, more leisurely society.

Ford disagrees. He argues that without work there is no income; when there are no jobs, who will buy what the robots are making?

Be prepared

The future can be prosperous and thrilling. Nevertheless, some “mild preparations” are essential to consider.

Turning classrooms into nodes of a massive open online course, or MOOC, is an efficient vision, but schools are only one part of education.

Beyond education, there is a need to resist the neo-Luddism of those who obsess over data privacy, while also making sure consumers can understand and extract the value of their data.

Our domestic and global tax systems will need to do more to reward work and progressively tax wealth.

The idea of a basic guaranteed income has gained popularity among some wonks: When there is no income to be earned because the robots are taking it all, the state will need to step in.

Better would be to gradually move toward a tax system that narrowed the labour to capital divergence, incentivising employment in the process.

We must arrive at a less hysterical approach to the robots business.Technological change is not new.

It can, as Ernest Hemingway said of bankruptcy, appear gradually then suddenly.

But our culture should be one that embraces technological change and remembers that it is an exclusively human ability to make moral decisions.

Source: Deccanherald

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