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There is so much doom and gloom associated with robots and jobs it is time to add some common sense to the misunderstandings created by so called experts opinions about robots and jobs – thankfully authors from the OECD may have added some clarity to the debate — ‘finding that on average, across the 21 OECD countries, ‘9% of jobs rather than 47%, as proposed by Frey and Osborne face a high automatibility.’
Capitalism, the term for our global ‘free’ markets, is a uniquely future-oriented economic system in which people invest, make innovations, apply for patents, and in other ways bet on the future. Behind all of this we find the hallmark of humanity, which is our creative intelligence.
It is intelligence that drives these investments and innovations, and intelligence that forges within many of us an intense curiosity of what the future may hold.
It is also intelligence that forges in others an anxiety over what the future holds. For many the future is no longer a promise but a threat!
Pessimism is the easy way out.
This curiosity and anxiety has stirred the same debates in society for generations. On one side there is intense optimism for a future where machines can take over many of the dirty, dangerous, dull and repetitive jobs, opening up new and more ‘interesting and rewarding’ jobs for those that may be displaced.
And on the other side those who are concerned that this time really is different and the machines we are building now, or which we will soon be capable of building, will be so advanced that there really will be no ‘new types’ of jobs for humans – and so they claim the majority of jobs for humans will be eliminated.
To those pessimists I often quote Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay who in 1830 wrote about the prophet’s of gloom:
On what principle is it, that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?
In his 1995 book Jeremy Rifkin stated that ‘intelligent machines’ were being ‘hurried in to’ work environments, thus ending work for people.
Now, for the first time, human labor is being systematically eliminated from the production process… A new generation of sophisticated information and communication technologies is being hurried into a wide variety of work situations. Intelligent machines are replacing human beings in countless tasks, forcing millions of blue and white-collar workers into unemployment lines, or worse still, breadlines.
It is 21 years since Rifkin made that claim, yet somehow human ingenuity marches on and continues to create more jobs and new industries. Sometimes new technologies eliminate jobs overall, but they also create demand for new capabilities and new jobs.
Looking with both eyes open
Despite the vast improvements we have made as a society, I wonder why it is that we look with one eye open, only seeing the negative aspect of technological change, instead of opening both eyes and seeing the benefits too. Often studies by ‘research scientists’ which receive significant media attention lead to misrepresentation of the potential benefits and impacts of technology and create fears, sometimes as if it is a fait accompli, even if this is not the intention of the study authors.
A new study by Melanie Arntz, Terry Gregory and Ulrich Zierahn for the OECD argues that studies on robots or computerization eradicating jobs, such as that by Frey and Osborne, lead to a severe overestimation of job automatibility, as occupations labelled as high-risk occupations often still contain a substantial share of tasks that are hard to automate.
9 % of jobs could be automatable
The OECD authors provide far more realistic assessments than Frey and Osborne:
In contrast to other studies, we take into account the heterogeneity of workers’ tasks within occupations. Overall, we find that, on average across the 21 OECD countries, 9 % of jobs are automatable. The threat from technological advances thus seems much less pronounced.
Arntz, et al. argue that the estimated share of “jobs at risk” must not be equated with actual or expected employment losses from technological advances for three reasons.
- The utilisation of new technologies is a slow process, due to economic, legal and societal hurdles, so that technological substitution often does not take place as expected.
- Even if new technologies are introduced, workers can adjust to changing technological endowments by switching tasks, thus preventing technological unemployment.
- Technological change also generates additional jobs through demand for new technologies and through higher competitiveness.
Effectively the authors take into account that not whole occupations, but specific jobs are exposed to automatibility, depending on the tasks performed at these particular jobs.
They also demonstrate the necessity to view technological change as substituting or complementing certain tasks rather than whole occupations, which as I have mentioned before in this blog a major flaw in the Frey and Osborne study.
The OECD study authors state:
We find that in the US only 9% of jobs rather than 47%, as proposed by Frey and Osborne face a high automatibility.
We further find heterogeneities across OECD countries: while the share of automatable jobs is 6 % in Korea, the corresponding share is 12 % in Austria. The differences across countries may reflect general differences in workplace organisation, differences in previous investments into automation technologies as well as differences in the education of workers across countries.
Table 1 Automatibility by OECD Countries
The main conclusion from the paper
Automation and digitalisation are unlikely to destroy large numbers of jobs. However, low qualified workers are likely to bear the brunt of the adjustment costs as the automatibility of their jobs is higher compared to highly qualified workers. Therefore, the likely challenge for the future lies in coping with rising inequality and ensuring sufficient (re-)training especially for low qualified workers.
Too many so called research experts have created way too much fear and public perception, which in turn can lead to bad policy recommendations. We need to be thoughtful in our vision, and analytical in our implementation – and realistic in our expectations of technologies capabilities.
Herbert Spencer’s words in “From Freedom to Bondage” are as relevant today as when he wrote them in 1891:
The more things improve the louder become the exclamations about their badness.
 Thomas Babington Macaulay, Review of Southey’s Colloquies on Society, 1830 Edinburgh Review
 Jeremy Rifkin, The End of Work, 1995 Chapter 1.
 Arntz, M., T. Gregory and U. Zierahn (2016), working paper “The Risk of Automation for Jobs in OECD Countries: A Comparative Analysis”, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 189, OECD Publishing, Paris.
 Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State, With Six Essays on Government, Society, and Freedom (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1891), p. 487.
A recently released U.S. Department of Defense report, DTP 106: Policy Challenges of Accelerating Technological Change, sets out the potential benefits and concerns of Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and associated technologies (as well as advances in information and communications technologies (ICT) and cognitive science, big data, cloud computing, energy and nanotechnologies). Calling for policy choices that need to be made sooner rather than later, the authors, James Kadtke and Linton Wells II indicate:
This paper examines policy, legal, ethical, and strategy implications for national security of the accelerating science, technology, and engineering (ST&E) revolutions underway in five broad areas: biology, robotics, information, nanotechnology, and energy (BRINE), with a particular emphasis on how they are interacting. The paper considers the timeframe between now and 2030 but emphasizes policy and related choices that need to be made in the next few years
Recognizing advances in Robotics and AI the authors state their concerns about maintaining the US Department of Defense’s present technological preeminence and how this will be a difficult challenge. They believe that ‘many dedicated people are addressing the technology issues,’ but policy actions are also crucial to adapt to — and shape — the technology component of the international security environment. With respect to robotics they outline the areas they see advances in and where policy changes are needed:
Progress in robotics, artificial intelligence, and human augmentation is enabling advanced unmanned and autonomous vehicles for battlefield and hazardous operations, low-cost autonomous manufacturing, and automated systems for health and logistics.
Referencing a January 2014 report, Preparing for War in the Robotics Age by The Center for a New American Security, the new DOD report outlines the advantages and concerns should these technologies fall into the hands of adversaries:
Many of these areas, and especially their convergence, will result in disruptive new capabilities for D.o.D. which can improve warfighter performance, reduce health-care and readiness costs, increase efficiency, enhance decision making, reduce human risk… However, U.S. planning must expect that many of these also will be available to adversaries who may use them under very different ethical and legal constraints than we would.
To set the tone for the next 16 years and illustrate the rapid changes in technology they point to the fact that 16 years ago Facebook and Twitter did not exist and Google was just getting started. They remind us of where the world was in robotics 16 years ago and where it is now:
In robotics, few unmanned vehicles were fielded by the U.S. military; today, thousands of unmanned aerial vehicles are routinely employed on complex public and private missions, and unmanned ground and sea vehicles are becoming common.
The amount of change we can expect by 2030 is likely to be much greater than we have experienced since 1998, and it will be qualitatively different as technology areas become more highly integrated and interactive.
U.S. D.oD runs the risk of falling behind
They emphasize the need to mitigate the risks of this rapid development, and effectively exploit its development through carefully deliberated policies ‘to navigate a complex and uncertain future,’ despite the fact that ‘America’s share of global research is steadily declining.’
Focusing on the fact that other countries and the private sector are taking the lead in robotics, A.I. and human augmentation such as exoskeleton’s, they say that the ‘United States must begin to prepare for warfare in the robotic age.’
Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Human Augmentation: After decades of research and development, a wide range of technologies is now being commercialized that can augment or replace human physical and intellectual capabilities. Advances in sensors, materials, electronics, human interfaces, control algorithms, and power sources are making robots commercially viable — from personal devices to industrial-scale facilities. Several countries, including the United States, now have large-scale national initiatives aimed at capturing this burgeoning economic sector. Artificial intelligence has also made major advances in recent years, and although still limited to “weak” artificial intelligence, or AI, general-purpose artificial intelligence may be available within a decade.
They say that most of these technologies are, by themselves, merely tools, but these tools are turned into capabilities when adopted and used by people, organizations, societies, and governments.
Policy, legal, ethical and organizational issues
The report outlines 12 sections ‘offering cross-cutting recommendations that address broader policy, legal, ethical, and organizational issues… where there will be opportunities for shaping actions and capacity building within the next 2–3 years.’
One of those sections is concerned with the decline of US manufacturing — the report authors outline their concerns that U.S. manufacturers may not be able to produce U.S. DoD equipment and the technical know how will be in the hands of foreign governments:
The loss of domestic manufacturing capability for cutting-edge technologies means the United States may increasingly need to rely on foreign sources for advanced weapons systems and other critical components, potentially creating serious dependencies. Global supply chain vulnerabilities are already a significant concern, for example, from potential embedded “kill switches,” and these are likely to worsen.
The loss of advanced manufacturing also enhances tech transfer to foreign nations and helps build their Science Technology & Engineering base, which accelerates the loss of U.S. talent and capital. This loss of technological preeminence by the United States would result in a fundamental diminishing of national power.
Another of the 12 recommendations concerns so called KillBots:
Perhaps the most serious issue is the possibility of robotic systems that can autonomously decide when to take human life. The specter of Kill Bots waging war without human guidance or intervention has already sparked significant political backlash, including a potential United Nations moratorium on autonomous weapons systems. This issue is particularly serious when one considers that in the future, many countries may have the ability to manufacture, relatively cheaply, whole armies of Kill Bots that could autonomously wage war. This is a realistic possibility because today a great deal of cutting-edge research on robotics and autonomous systems is done outside the United States, and much of it is occurring in the private sector, including DIY robotics communities. The prospect of swarming autonomous systems represents a challenge for nearly all current weapon systems.
They recommend that the DoD should seek to remain ahead of the curve by developing concepts for new roles and missions and developing operational doctrine for forces made up significantly or even entirely of unmanned or autonomous elements and that government ‘should also be highly proactive in taking steps to ensure that it is not perceived as creating weapons systems without a “human in the loop.”
In the longer term, fully robotic soldiers may be developed and deployed, particularly by wealthier countries, although the political and social ramifications of such systems will likely be significant. One negative aspect of these trends, however, lies in the risks that are possible due to unforeseen vulnerabilities that may arise from the large scale deployment of smar automated systems, for which there is little practical experience. An emerging risk is the ability of small scale or terrorist groups to design and build functionally capable unmanned systems which could perform a variety of hostile missions.
Emphasizing that these technologies enable not only profoundly positive advancements for mankind but also new modes of war-fighting and tools for malicious behavior “the DoD cannot afford to be unprepared for its consequences.”
The report provides research data on various aspects of robotics, including economics, which shows that a large amount of research dollars are being invested in these systems globally by governments and corporations, whilst acknowledging that there are still considerable technical and social hurdles to overcome, principally because of concerns about the safety of human-to-robot interactions. However they believe that their recommendations, together with investments from NSF, DARPA, private sector and other governments, may be a key driver for developing the technical, legal, and sociological tools to make robots commonplace in human society.
Robotics is just one of a number of other new technologies that the report outlines, nevertheless policy makers worldwide would do well to head the advice and look at policy changes which will be needed to address these new systems.
Hat tip to Javier Lopez for a link to the paper.
Photo from Center for a New American Security – Preparing for War in a Robotic Age
Robots serving various tasks and purposes in the medical/health and social care sectors beyond the traditional scope of surgical and rehabilitation robots are poised to become one of the most important technological innovations of the 21st century. Nevertheless, unresolved issues for these platforms are: patient safety, as the robots are necessarily quite powerful and rigid and the cost effectiveness of these solutions. (PDF)
“I would make a distinction between machine intelligence and machine decision-making.
We should be afraid. Not of intelligent machines. But of machines making decisions that they do not have the intelligence to make. I am far more afraid of machine stupidity than of machine intelligence.
Machine stupidity creates a tail risk. Machines can make many, many good decisions and then one day fail spectacularly on some a tail event that did not appear in their training data. This is the difference between specific and general intelligence.” (Sendhil Mullainathan)
Two groups of scientists, working independently, have created artificial intelligence software capable of recognizing and describing the content of photographs and videos with far greater accuracy than ever before, sometimes even mimicking human levels of understanding. (NY Times)
So until the androids take over, smart software and big data are merely very useful tools to help us work. Machines replace many kinds of repetitive work, from flying airplanes to sorting through medical symptoms. And to the extent that deeply smart humans can program potential problems into the software — even relatively rare ones — the system can react faster than a human. Some day robots may have deep smarts. For the present, we would settle for preserving the human variety and continuing to forge ever more productive partnerships with our silicon cousins. (Harvard Business Review)
Looking for a job in A.I.? A sneak peak at what it’s like working inside an A.I. Lab
It’s a compelling time to be working in A.I. to impact a huge number of lives. Baidu Research – Have an Inside Look into Baidu’s Silicon Valley A.I. Lab with learning lunches. (Baidu A.I. Lab Video)
In an experiment, MIT researchers used their AR system to place obstacles — like human pedestrians — in the path of robots, which had to navigate through a virtual city. The robots had to detect the obstacles and then compute the optimal route to avoid running into them. As the robots did that, a projection system displayed their “thoughts” on the ground, so researchers could visualize them in real time.
While we have always heard of a future in which robots would be handling most of the labor, it’s hard to think that most people pictured it in the way that things seem to be heading. Sure, automated work forces will be handling many of the world’s tasks in a relatively short amount of time, ushering in a new era of prosperity and leisure for the masses. The problem is that that prosperity hasn’t been shared, and many of the world’s poor and middle classes will end up scrambling to make ends meet as a result.
RoboLaw: Why and how to regulate robotics
Even a robot that can perform complex tasks without human supervision and take decisions towards that end may still not be deemed an agent in a philosophical sense, let alone a legal one. The robot is still an object, a product, a device, not bearing rights but meant to be used. What would justify a shift on a purely ontological basis (thus forcing us to consider the robot as a being provided with rights and duties) is what Gutman, Rathgeber and Syed call ‘strong autonomy’ – namely the ability to decide for one’s self and set one’s own goals. However, at present this belongs to the realm of science fiction, and it can be argued that this is not the direction we desire to take with robots in any case.
Elon Musk wades in — again: Talking at MIT’s Aeronautics and Astronautics Department’s Centennial Symposium last week, Musk said, “With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon. You know all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water and he’s like… yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon—it doesn’t work out.” Mike Loukides counters that:
David Ferrucci and the other IBMers who built Watson understand that Watson’s potential in medical diagnosis isn’t to have the last word, or to replace a human doctor. It’s to be part of the conversation, offering diagnostic possibilities that the doctor hasn’t considered, and the reasons one might accept (or reject) those diagnoses. That’s a healthy and potentially important step forward in medical treatment, but do the doctors using an automated service to help make diagnoses understand that? Does our profit-crazed health system understand that? When will your health insurance policy say “you can only consult a doctor after the AI has failed”? Or “Doctors are a thing of the past, and if the AI is wrong 10% of the time, that’s acceptable; after all, your doctor wasn’t right all the time, anyway”? The problem isn’t the tool; it’s the application of the tool.
The prospect of a jobless economy certainly seems daunting. But if we can successfully manage it and put our machines to work, we could enter into an unprecedented era of material abundance while dramatically extending our leisure time. Rather than be tied to menial and demeaning work, we’d be free to engage in activities that truly interest us.
The Japanese government has held the first meeting of a new panel focused on its goal of a “robotics revolution,” a key item in the government’s economic growth strategy adopted in June.
The robot revolution panel is tasked with promoting measures to increase the use of robots and related technologies in various fields, extending out of the manufacturing sector and into hotel, distribution, medical and elderly nursing-care services. The appropriate use of robots will be a key to solving these problems, according to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who instigated the robot panel.
Despite Japan being a leader in the field of industrial robots, companies still rely heavily on human labor, making it difficult to secure enough workers and blocking efforts to improve productivity. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe instructed ‘the robot revolution council:’
“To work out a strategy for using robots as the key means to solve labor shortages amid the declining birthrate and aging population, low productivity of the services sector and other challenges plaguing Japan and for developing the robot industry into a growth sector to explore global markets.
Adding his hope that the government will seek to make Japan a showcase for robots in service for various areas ahead of other countries by 2020.
The government said Japan will double its robot-related market to ¥1.2 trillion (US$11.3 billion) by 2020 in the manufacturing sector and achieve a 20-fold jump in the non manufacturing sector, also to ¥1.2 trillion (US$11.3 billion).
A government paper lays out the factors behind the robot revolution with respect to manufacturing, stating:
The Government will seek to improve (factory) productivity through the utilization of robot technology, thereby improving the profitability of companies and helping to raise wages.
The panel, chaired by Mitsubishi Electric Corp. consultant Tamotsu Nomakuchi, will work out a five-year plan to be presented by the end of 2014, with details on how they will achieve the numerical targets.
The robot council will also discuss the legal regulations needed to promote the use of robots and related technologies.
Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the planet is abuzz with humans designing, organizing, manufacturing, servicing, transporting, communicating, trading, buying, and selling
Think of all the economic activity around you on a day-to-day basis, things that may seem commonplace but nevertheless require a great deal of coordination and ‘work.’ Ms. Rifkin who owns the local flower shop gets her delivery of tulips, Mr. Friedman’s insurance claim for his colonoscopy is processed, petrol stations have their pumps replenished over night so the millions of drivers on our roads can refuel on their way to or from the hundreds of thousands of different office locations, retail stores, factories and warehouses where they complete a myriad of professions. Look outside your window and you will have an idea of just how the global economy is a marvel of complexity, people talking on mobile phones, wearing clothes, shoes and make-up made on the other side of the world.
Now think about how many of the world’s professions have been or could be replaced by automation or robotics. It is highly probable that we will “see robots doing the jobs of humans in manufacturing plants (it is already the case), in grocery stores, in pharmacies, driving cars and making deliveries.”
But it is also highly probable that much of the work robots will do… will actually augment human labor not displace it. MIT professor of economics, David Autor believes the media vastly oversells the degree to which technology will displace highly skilled workers. He believes changing technology will instead complement these workers’ skills and help them to become more productive. In a new paper that accompanied Autor’s speech at Jackson Hole last Friday he actually reflects: “on how recent advances in artificial intelligence and robotics should shape our thinking about the likely trajectory of occupational change and employment growth.” (RobotEnomics emphasis added).
Autor considers the oft quoted meme that the “robot overlords” will soon take our jobs, and asks:
But where are these robot overlords? And if they are not here already — and all outward appearances suggest that they are not — should we expect their imminent arrival?
The main thesis of the report is that whilst automation and robotics can do the work of routine tasks it is far more difficult for robots to complete non-routine tasks:
Executing non-routine tasks is a central obstacle in computer-based automation.
Referring to Amazon’s acquisition of Kiva robotics Autor refers to the fact that Amazon still needs thousands of human’s in their warehouses:
These warehouses employ legions of dexterous, athletic “pickers,” who run and climb through shelves of typically non-‐‑air conditioned warehouses to locate, collect, box, label and ship goods to purchasers. There is at present no technologically viable or cost-‐‑effective robotic facsimile for these human pickers.
The job’s steep requirements for flexibility, object recognition, physical dexterity, and fine motor coordination are too formidable (for robots or automation).
But large components of warehousing can be automated as Amazon’s Kiva systems shows. However Autor emphasizes humans and robots working together in these warehouses:
Human flexibility is still required in the Kiva operated warehouse: only workers handle merchandise; robots only move shelves.
The report highlights the fact that machines need clear goals or instructions, whereas humans can operate with flexibility and judgment:
Humans naturally tackle tasks in a manner that draws on their inherent flexibility, problem solving capability, and judgment. Machines currently lack many of these capabilities, but they possess other facilities in abundance: strength, speed, accuracy, low cost, and unwavering fealty to directions.
The author indicates that even with advances in machine learning his: “general observation is that the tools (automation, soft A.I.) are inconsistent.”
Whilst acknowledging that there could be breakthroughs in technology (I think the author should have looked closer at Google’s DeepMind), the principal conclusion from the report is “that the challenges to computerizing numerous everyday tasks — from the sublime to the mundane — remain substantial,” and therefore robots will not be taking millions of jobs any time soon.
Outlining jobs where wages have stagnated and also those that the report author believes cannot be done by robots he concludes with the belief that robots and humans will collaborate and complement each other in the workplace (see also Human-computer symbiosis, not Artificial Intelligence, will spur new jobs):
There is a long history of leading thinkers overestimating the potential of new technologies to substitute for human labor and underestimating their potential to complement it.
He calls on governments and institutions to increase investment in training and education that produces skills which are complemented rather than substituted by technology. A point echoed by the European Union Commission who state: “More than 20% of GDP would quite simply disappear from Europe without intensive use of advanced robotics.” And that intensive use of robotics requires people skilled in building and working with advanced technologies. As I’ve said before – it’s a good time to join the robotics sector…
An OECD report: Policy challenges for the next 50 years indicates: “Over the coming decades labor forces will age substantially.” “Population ageing will result in a decline in the potential labor force… causing a negative labor supply.” They then ominously add:
An ageing workforce and longer working-lives will mean a longer period where depreciation of skills and technological change risk making human capital obsolete.
Another report by Moody’s quoted in the Financial Times states:
The world will have 13 “super-aged” societies by 2020, up from just three today, according to a report that warns of ageing populations becoming a drag on global economic growth.
Most of the countries set to join the “super-aged” club by 2020 are in Europe and include the Netherlands, France, Sweden, Portugal, Slovenia and Croatia. But by 2030 they will be joined by a more diverse group including Hong Kong, Korea, the US, the UK and New Zealand. In the meantime, more than 60 per cent of the countries rated by Moody’s will be “ageing” next year, where 7 per cent of the population is 65 or older.
A report by CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, Roads to Recovery posits that by 2023 the ageing population will have a negative effect on the economy:
Potential growth of employment first of all depends on population growth, in particular, the growth of the working-age population. Due to the ageing of the population, this growth has come to a halt.
Robotics technology has significant potential to impact on the societal challenges concerned with the ageing society. An ageing population will see declining productivity. However as reported by Morgan Stanley in their publication; The Internet of Things is Now:
Widening use of robots may be a welcome solution to one of the consequences of global ageing. Over the next 30 years, the number of people aged 20-64 years will decline in countries such as China, Japan, Germany, and Russia. By increasing the use of technology, companies can optimize productivity, thus helping to offset some of the headwinds of lower labor supply and higher wage inflation that are likely to emerge over the next 20-40 years.
Robots provide a preventative benefit to counterbalance the ageing process. The UK Government recognized the importance of robots to an ageing society in their report, RAS 2020: robotics and autonomous systems:
In the future, we will increasingly use Robots and Autonomous Systems to enhance almost every aspect of our lives. They will be part of our response to national challenges: an ageing population, safer transport, efficient healthcare, productive manufacturing, and secure energy.
Human history has always been characterized by technological advances to help society. Roboticists recognize that robots need to offer gains in productivity and support to justify an investment. The ageing society provides a strong imperative to develop robotic systems.
With an ageing population it may be plausible to think instead of robots replacing jobs; robots will actually mitigate the expected economic strains caused by the demographic changes ahead.