If you're reading this, you're probably familiar with the debate over whether a robot will take your job. Will manufacturing ever provide a stable income again? Will robot nurses replace human nurses? Would this article be better if it were written by an AI?
You're also probably at least passingly familiar with the arguments about whether or not your life will be improved by things like self-checkout systems and driverless cars. If you're optimistic, they'll automate low-level tasks and free us up to take more complex jobs, or to spend our time pursuing personal interests. If you're pessimistic, they'll concentrate wealth in the hands of a small part of the population, gutting the middle class and driving workers into either unemployment or low-paying menial tasks that still require a human face. Either way, the Pew Research Center's survey of around 2,000 selected experts on the future of jobs won't introduce you to many new arguments, and it won't provide you with any new facts. What it will do is lay out where people in technology stand on our pending robot apocalypse, and which arguments are getting the most traction.
"Someone has to make and service all these advanced devices."
In general, the scales are tipped very slightly towards optimism: 48 percent believe that automation will displace a number of both blue- and white-collar jobs and poses a threat to their future employment, while 52 percent believe that those displaced workers will move into other industries created by automation. A notable optimist is "father of the internet" Vint Cerf: "Historically, technology has created more jobs than it destroys and there is no reason to think otherwise in this case," he says. "Someone has to make and service all these advanced devices." Mike Roberts, the first president and CEO of ICANN, is on the other side. "Electronic human avatars with substantial work capability are years, not decades away. ... There is great pain down the road for everyone as new realities are addressed. The only question is how soon." Entrepreneur Elon Musk has made even more dire warnings about AI in the past, though he saw the threat going far beyond jobs.
Cerf (who currently works for Google) believes that self-driving cars are "very likely" by 2025, and journalist Jeff Jarvis sees pervasive artificial intelligence by then as well. There's dispute over how much artificial intelligence will advance over the next ten years, and whether it will have significantly changed the job market by 2025, but many predict an expansion of automated bank teller, checkout, or information machines to other areas of life. To give one typical statement, we "can extrapolate from there as automated parking lots add robotic valet service, subway lines no longer require drivers, and garbage pickup services are robot-controlled," says Linda Rogers, who organizes classical music performances in Second Life. Google chief economist Hal Varian says that "the creative class by 2025 will have a digital assistant in their work and personal lives who all but replaces what we think of today as administrative help."
52 percent optimists, 48 percent pessimists
To some, these things are welcome changes. "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?" asks Varian. "My guess is this ‘job displacement' has been very welcome, as will the ‘job displacement' that will occur over the next 10 years." Few people in the survey seem outright opposed to the idea of automating work, but many are worried that the economic impact on most people will be negative. GigaOM Research head Stowe Boyd lays out an extreme scenario: "An increasing proportion of the world's population will be outside of the world of work-either living on the dole, or benefiting from the dramatically decreased costs of goods to eke out a subsistence lifestyle. The central question of 2025 will be: what are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the 'bot-based economy?'"
"What are people for in a world that does not need their labor?
The question is as much political as it is technological. Many, including Roberts, believe that the educational system isn't preparing students to adapt to new industries, which will require high levels of flexibility and mastery of new skills as old ones become obsolete — although few seem to speculate that the "army of talented coders" we need to manage present-day automation might one day itself be partially automated. And governments will have to decide how much of a social safety net they want to provide for displaced workers, whether they're simply in transition or are facing long-term unemployment. "There's no economic law that says the jobs eliminated by new technologies will inevitably be replaced by new jobs in new markets," says MIT Technology Review editor in chief Jason Pontin. "All of this is manageable by states and economies: but it will require wrestling with ideologically fraught solutions, such as a guaranteed minimum income, and a broadening of our social sense of what is valuable work."
So, is a robot going to take your job? The most common answers seem to be "Yes, but you'll get a better one" and "Yes, and you will be obsolete." The most helpful one might be "Yes. What are we going to do about it?"