TECH EXPERT: People who fear robots taking their jobs 'lack imagination'

Dr Catherine Ball. (Source: Vivid Sydney, supplied)

There’s been much talk about whether the rise of intelligent robots, machine learning and artificial intelligence has the potential for social and economic unrest, by leaving millions or even billions of humans without jobs.

Oxford University professor of globalisation and former World Bank vice president Ian Goldin told Business Insider in May that emerging technologies could trigger a “rapid widening of inequality” as many groups find it increasingly difficult to secure “decent jobs”.

However, one tech expert disagrees with this view – and says those that are anxious for their jobs have an irrational fear and “lack imagination”.

“If someone sits there and says ‘A robot’s going to take my job’, then I really have to wonder what it is they’re doing for work,” said author and entrepreneur Dr Catherine Ball at the Xerocon conference in Melbourne.

“This idea that these things are going to take something from us, honestly, if that’s how you see this then you lack imagination. And you lack creativity.”

Ball is the co-founder of the World Drones Congress and SheFlies and also currently serves on the Queensland Premier’s Business Advisory Council and the Australian National University’s Business & Industry Advisory Board. In 2015, she won the Telstra Queensland Business Woman of the Year award.

Ball said that her conversations with historians and futurists have convinced her that job losses would not occur from technology, citing the increase in employment in the US after the first, second and third industrial revolutions.

“Quite frankly there’s only ever been one job that has ever been automated globally [out of existence]… elevator operator. Who wants to have a job pulling the floors of the elevator? That’s a mundane and boring [and now] roboticised problem.”

Opportunity for humans to work less

The automation of jobs currently held by humans should be used as an opportunity for people to reduce their working hours to allow more time for rest and leisure, according to Ball.

“All of us, I think here, have done unpaid overtime… We have this terrible thing where we’re almost validating ourselves by how many hours we beat ourselves up,” she said.

“There’s a study in Japan showed that the most efficient working week is a three-day working week. And in Sweden they’re bringing in the four-day working week. The idea is that if you burn yourself out… you’re not actually doing your job very well. So there’s one thing that AI is going to be able to do — to allow us to be more human.”

The extra time would also allow people to solve big picture issues.

“An ageing population. How do we find cures for cancer? How do we eradicate famine and big diseases? How do we cope with climate change? Rather than worrying about how you fill in a line in an Excel spreadsheet, you could be actually thinking about these bigger problems in the world, contributing to your own society and having a happier, healthier life for yourself.”

Universal basic income and multinational taxation

Xero founder and chief executive Rod Drury, who announced a whole bunch of new product functionality at Xerocon that utilised machine learning and artificial intelligence, said that the reduction in work hours could see a universal basic income kick in — but the issue of multinational corporate taxation had to be resolved to fund such a concept.

“For smaller countries that may not have the large global providers that are grabbing all the global revenue, how do we make sure there’s enough tax being paid in each of the geographies so you can get to universal basic income?” he said.

“There’s quite a bit of interesting geopolitical work going on at the moment on global taxation on corporates. It’s a really interesting thought experiment, thinking out if AI and all that projected out in 30 or 40 years, we have to think about global tax and all those issues.”

The New Zealand entrepreneur said that even though Xero was “trying go as fast as we can” on machine learning and artificial intelligence, accounting remained a “high-touch environment” that needed people to solve complex problems.

“That’s why we take really seriously building the human side of the industry,” he said.

“We’ve made that decision strategically. And hopefully you see in everything we do is about building the accounting industry, not tearing it down… It makes so much more sense to take everyone on the AI and machine learning journey with us.”

The journalist travelled to Melbourne courtesy of Xero.

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