Depending on which report you read, artificial intelligence (AI) will lead to the loss of thousands or millions or billions of jobs over the next decade or so. Whatever that number ends up being, the fact remains that machines are going to have a huge impact on the nature of work, and the roles humans are required or allowed to fulfil in the future.
To prepare for the coming of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), as this machine-led era is dubbed, frameworks need to be in place to ensure people’s livelihoods are protected, and that the general public support the potential benefits rather than view the rise of the robots as a threat.
These issues were a hot topic for discussion at the recent Think.AI for Public Sector event in Westminster, during a panel debate into the Societal Impact of AI.
Jessica Figueras, chief analyst at GlobalData Public Sector, noted that despite AI’s reliance on technology trends that have been around for a number of years, such as universal connectivity and digital transformation, it’s only more recently that real concerns are starting to emerge. She said:
What is really new is that people are waking up and they are getting a sense of unease. It’s almost people’s emotional responses to it are something quite different. It’s not the emotional response you get when you’re talking about CRM or ERP.
Is it something to do with autonomy? Is it the services themselves, the new applications of it that is crossing the line and making people feel uneasy? When society develops very quickly, people can’t understand what is happening and why it’s happening.
Figueras compared the AI conundrum to the complex problems around social care.
We still have a completely dysfunctional way of funding social care. We can’t seem to adapt to the aging society. We know that someone’s going to have to pay more, we know that we will benefit from new system but it can’t seem to happen.
In the case of AI, there will be lots of positive effects that people are happy to accept. Everyone will be quite happy that intelligence services and police are using it to predict terrorism, but when it starts to affect people who aren’t those awful ‘other people’, when it starts to affect ‘me’, that’s when we get things starting to not happen.
A lack of trust
According to Tim Page, senior policy officer at the Trades Union Congress, the situation could not have reared its head at a worse time. He noted that trust in the political class and businesses is very low, and that the rewards of the previous economy game-changer – globalisation – are not being shared fairly across the population. He said:
At that time, to ask people to accept something as mind-blowing as artificial intelligence is quite a challenge. Part of the reason why is there’s this sense of a lack of trust. The gains from AI could be massive. But from a workforce perspective, people are asking themselves one question – is a robot about to take my job?
Page pointed to Bank of England figures that highlighted as many as 35 percent of UK jobs could disappear over the next 20 years due to automation. It is this possibility that people are worried about, despite evidence showing that all the previous industrial transformations – steam, electrical, internet, personal computers – actually led to more jobs created than lost, and an increase in productivity and wages. As Page explained:
Those effects weren’t felt evenly across the board. There were winners and losers. Where people’s jobs are at risk, how do we get them to a situation where there are new opportunities for them. How do we ensure the gains from productivity from these things are fairly shared. This is where public policy should focus on.
Frameworks that are fair
Ensuring a broad range of jobs exist into the future should be a key concern for the government. Over the last couple of decades, the types of jobs being created have mostly been low-paid jobs that tend to be in the service sector, alongside a rise in unpaid work such as childcare and internships.
On a brighter note, there is time to get the right frameworks in place to help all of society benefit from the machine era. Page noted that based on the BoE estimates, we have a number of years to plan for the AI revolution and get the policy right, to shift our reliance on jobs in the most at-risk sectors like manufacturing, transport and retail towards the key skills of problem-solving and cognitive skills. He said:
What AI does less well is take problems and think about different combinations of outcomes that can create solutions in the way the human mind creatively does. People who have those kinds of skills are the people that will be relatively safe.
But this is ever-shifting. People used to believe there was a job for life, and now nobody believes that anymore. We are going to need to continually renew our skills set.
Page believes that the idea of people being in continual employment from when they leave education to when they retire will disappear in the AI era. Instead, some kind of funding structure will be needed to support people stepping out of the workplace for a year or two to acquire new skills, to ensure they can continue to cover financial commitments like paying the mortgage and putting food on the table, and be employable.
However, the notion of Universal Basic Income (UBI) – as being trialled in Finland where everyone gets a set monthly amount whether they are in work or not – is not one welcomed by Page, who maintains that aside from earning a wage, having a job has various health benefits and avoids social isolation. He said:
We’re not convinced it’s desirable or necessary. UBI gives up on the idea of work. It says the economy of the future won’t create jobs so we need to find another way of paying for people. We’re not convinced we’re at that stage yet.
Part of an industrial strategy for us is the creation of good work. We’ve not got there in the UK or across Europe.
Page cited Germany as a beacon for best practice around AI policy, as the industry unions have been included as part of the debate alongside government and businesses.
It needs all stakeholders to have a voice in how this technology is introduced. If we do it in opposition to certain groups in society, especially those that feel they’re vulnerable, then clearly we’re going to struggle to build any consensus of support around what is going to be the biggest technological shift of any of our lifetimes.
This is what we feel very strongly the government should be doing.
Including all stakeholders in 4IR policy creation will also make sure that it is not left to technology companies to decide our future. Figueras noted that new technologies can change the basis of society, as evidenced by Facebook creating new challenges for democracy. She added:
The designers of algorithms and the new systems have huge power to design society. There’s a concern about that power becoming concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.
If decisions about the allocation of local resources, for example, are not just being made by your local council – where you can go and watch them in action and observe their meetings – suddenly these decisions are being made behind closed doors by algorithms designed by two nerds possibly on the other side of the world. New forms of accountability are going to have to be developed to get over that problem.d
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Disclosure - diginomica works in partnership with Think Digital Partners, the creators of Think AI for Public Sector.