In the next two decades, somewhere in the United States, a legal secretary is going to be handed a pink slip when she gets to work. Her worst fears have come true — a computer program has made her work obsolete. It’s faster, cheaper, more accurate, and doesn’t take up any space.
Most science fiction movies portray apocalyptic scenarios of malevolent robots taking over but the scenario described above is actually more accurate. It may be much more mundane, but no less terrifying.
Artificial intelligence (AI) and robots are more likely to take our livelihoods than our lives. And it may leave a big gap between the haves and have-nots in its wake.
A 2013 Oxford study estimates that up to 47% of jobs are likely to be automated by 2030. The jobs being lost will be unspecialized professions or jobs traditionally held by the middle class — putting a wedge on an already widening inequality gap.
AI has been around a long time but we’re just entering an era where AI is booming. But the boom in AI is coming at a time when income and wealth inequality is at its widest since the Federal Reserve began collecting data, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center Report.
The report found that the median wealth of the country’s richest families was “nearly 70 times that of the country’s lower-income families,” and seven times that of middle income families.
And it doesn’t seem like anyone else will ever get the chance to catch up. Wages have stagnated, making it difficult for anyone to rise up the ranks. According to a 2015 Economic Policy Institute report, wages for 90% of the workforce grew just 15% between 1979 and 2013. Contrast that with the annual pay of the top 1%, which grew 138%.
Now combine that trend with the kind of jobs being lost to automation and it’s clear why AI researchers, economists, and even physicists think AI and robots could hollow out jobs originally held by the middle classes in the coming years.
While it’s no surprise that AI is taking jobs in sectors like manufacturing, white collar jobs that pay middle class incomes are also being automated. Credit analysts and legal secretaries both have middle class incomes and a 98% risk of automation, according to the Oxford study. Meanwhile, jobs at the very top of the ladder are nearly robot-proof. For example, CEOs and managers, have just a 1% chance of automation.
In fact, Jerry Kaplan, author of “Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence,” told Tech Insider that any person that toils through many “repetitive and structured” tasks for a living will be at risk of having their job automated.
Take the legal secretary above — her work required researching relevant materials before trials, filling out forms and contracts, and scheduling appointments with clients. But there are plenty of programs that can do on its own, like Fair Document and Judicata.
“Even for what you think of as highly-trained, highly-skilled, intuitive personable professions, it is still true that the vast majority of the work is routine,” Kaplan told Tech Insider.
In other words, it may be harder for people with fewer means to catch up and retrain for career changes. Imagine the legal secretary’s scenario again. She goes to a packed job fair, but discovers that much of the work experience on her resume can be automated.
Between her part-time job as a barista, caring for her family, applying and interviewing for other work, and managing her household, she can barely find the time and resources to retrain for the kind of skills that she noticed most of the job postings are asking for.
While new technologies will make humanity smarter, AI will likely do little to fix the middle-class gap. New technology tends to be expensive, and only those who can afford it can participate in its advantages. The secretary likely wouldn’t be able to afford these advantages, giving those who have access to the technology an even larger head start on her.
“Imagine if skills could just be downloaded,” Whiteson said. “What’s going to happen when we have this kind of AI but only the rich can afford to become cyborgs, what’s that going to do to society? What’s that going to do to exacerbate problems like income equality?”
Eric Brynjolfssen, co-author of “The Second Machine Age,” told MIT Technology Review that AI and other digital technologies do benefit some people — the creative minds responsible for building the AI that could be putting people out of work. One example would be a person who can write an AI “to automate tax preparation that might earn millions or billions of dollars while eliminating the need for countless accountants,” according to MIT.
But, at a certain point, even these software engineer jobs could be automated.
“Even there I can envision systems that become better and better at writing software,” AI researcher Bart Selman told Tech Insider. “A person complemented with an intelligent system can write maybe ten times as much code, maybe a hundred times as much code. The problem then becomes you need a hundred times fewer human programmers.”
The rapid pace at which technology can be adopted is also playing a part in broadening the inequality gap. Toby Walsh, a computer science professor at the National Information and Community Technology at Australia, told Tech Insider that pace could make it difficult for people to retrain for jobs that are in demand.
“The great thing about computers is that you can reproduce the software almost at no cost,” Walsh told Tech Insider. “The changes that we see precipitated by changes in computing are ones that tend to happen very very quickly. The challenge there is that society tends to change rather slowly.”
According to a new Brookings study, public policy will have to change to take care of people who lose their jobs, especially as they retrain for new jobs. Social benefits like health care and retirement pensions are largely accessible through jobs, but as fewer people remain employable, it will fall on the government to figure out how to provide for them.
The study offers a few ideas on how the government could do this, including offering a basic income, expanding earned income tax credit, providing more opportunities for lifelong education, expanding companies’ profit sharing, subsidizing volunteerism, and revamping education to cater to the job market. In other words, we need to completely change how people work and earn money.
Michael Littman, an AI researcher at Brown University, told Tech Insider doing that means fundamentally changing how we think of people and their worth.
“My biggest concern at the moment is that we as a society find a way of valuing people not just for the work they do,” Littman said. “Otherwise these intelligent systems will get out there and people will become valueless, and society falls apart. We need to value each other first and foremost.”
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