I recently got into an "argument" on Twitter. I mean, that’s the whole point of Twitter; right?
It’s about automation. Endless digital ink has been spilled on the idea of robots rising up to overcome their meat-based overlords. I blame SciFi. The Matrix, Terminator, 2001: A Space Odyssey (ask your grandparents about that last one, Gen Z).
Conspiracy theorists crow that AI is going to take away all of our jobs and make the human worker obsolete, eventually leading to war and the decline of civilization as we know it. The robots will rule with a heavy mechanized hand, and the average person will be out on the street selling pencils from a cup for scraps of bread. A scary prospect indeed.
But, the woo woos have got it wrong. (Developer’s note: “woo woo” is slang for a conspiracy theorist, and I just can’t stop myself from saying it. Woo woo.).
“Smart” machines are not a threat, but a boon to civilization. They're not non-meat-people plotting our carnal demise. Instead, they're magic.
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" —Arthur C. Clarke
I’ve spent a lot of time reading books about magic (who are you calling a "nerd"? Team Gryffindor btw. Check out Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. You’re welcome).
There are three things its practitioners *always* do:
- Excessively study it (some would say obsessively)
- Absorb the arcane and esoteric knowledge
- Become masters of the techniques pioneered long ago
This is how software works. The software we write is a technique for describing initial states and manipulations to arrive at a desired end state. Any software developer has to use those techniques to solve similar problems - or be knowledgeable enough to apply them to similar situations. When perfected (edge cases are sufficiently handled), a good approach to technique can be reified into an artifact (it is no coincidence that software engineers and magic nerds employ the word “artifact”). The artifact can be used by non-magical people, or people with a smaller volume of understanding about how it works.
For example, I have an app on my phone that can tell me the name of any plant the camera can see. Prior to this, I was only able to identify greenery by the technical terms “shrub”, “plant”, and “bush”. Has this app put botanists out of a job? No. We still need botanists, it’s only made their lives easier (and cut down on my phone time with my Uncle Harry.)
Anyway, back to my one-sided Twitter feud. It was with a SciFi author (remember how I blamed SciFi earlier for peoples’ current distrust of AI?).
In his argument, he believes that those who learn to code are simply learning a skill in automating human-mediated processes, which, because of the rise of AI technology, will reduce employment opportunities for humans. But this concept is simply not true. In reality, automation creates lower costs which translates to higher demand and actually creates jobs.
According to the World Economic Forum, they predicted “85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labor between humans and machines, while 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labor between humans, machines and algorithms.” Will people lose their jobs? Yes. But the amount of jobs created will vastly outnumber what was lost. Will those people who lost their jobs need to learn new skills and adjust to the new technology? Yes. But if they do, it will inevitably bring better, more efficient, and higher paid opportunities BECAUSE of the technology.
In the 1980s, people were worried the robots were coming for their factory jobs. As Mark Finlayson, an associate, professor of computer science at Florida International University, mused, “Today, there still are factory jobs, even though there are robots in factories. It’s just that the job in the factory has changed. Those people get paid more, they’re much more highly skilled, they have much more transferable skills than they did before. So I think this is a good example of how these tools are going to get integrated into the workforce.”
If you go even further back, history has repeated itself quite often on this issue. In the late 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I refused to approve a patent for sewing machines. As she put it,“I have too much regard for the poor women and unprotected young maidens who obtain their daily bread by knitting to forward an invention which, by depriving them of employment, would reduce them to starvation,”
However, instead of making seamstresses starve, the new technology created demand by making the work more expedient, less expensive, and able to produce more products on a massive scale. Ultimately, more jobs were created than lost. Instead of sewing by hand, seamstresses had to learn how to operate the new machinery, work in the factories, and fulfill new roles to keep up with the increased demand. This is NOT to say there wasn’t a period of pain and discomfort. A lot of time, energy, and money were required to retrain seamstresses to fulfill the new roles, but this was temporary, and the ends justified the means. Everybody benefited.
Years later, in the 19th century, came the Luddites: a radical faction of English textile workers who felt textile machinery would replace them. Violent protests erupted all over England. Eventually they were crushed by the crown. Their fear and anger is understandable in a way, but, as history shows, misguided, because of how mass production decreased prices significantly.
As Joseph Whitworth, arguably the greatest mechanical engineer in the UK during the Victorian era, put it, the “spectacular reduction in costs brought benefits to society at large… Staple goods became cheaper, and there would be more leisure time for workers and less need for strenuous manual labor. The technology created new and better jobs for working people, and wages could go up.” “The Economist” has a great article about this (thought I’d love to know what happened to my extra leisure time).
Whether it be then or now, when every producer in the market has access to the same technology, they start selling the product cheaper (competition with each other drives prices closer to the cost of production). Lower prices increase demand, which means there will be a net increase in jobs. The new technology WILL inevitably disrupt and displace certain skilled laborers, causing temporary uncertainty and pain, but society must be prepared for the vast amount of new jobs that get created.
What we, our leaders, and my SciFi “challenger” should really be thinking about is not the jobs that are going to be lost due to AI, but the many more jobs that are going to be created because of it. We need to anticipate the new jobs AI is going to create, and adequately train and prepare those people whose old jobs are going to be displaced because of it, BEFORE it happens. Not after.