Tech giants Elon Musk and Mark Zuckeberg have been engaged in a very public, somewhat silly and self-indulgent battle over artificial intelligence lately. Musk has warned AI-powered robots could usher in some form of automated war to give humanity its richly deserved demise, while Zuckerberg responded by saying he is “really optimistic” it could usher a golden age of lifesaving technology.
Both have traded blows, with Zuckerberg saying the doomsaying is “pretty irresponsible,” and Musk tweeting he thinks the Facebook head just doesn’t understand the issue. The whole thing is a little eyeroll-inducing given true AI remains a pipe dream for now, and both men stand to benefit greatly from machine learning trends which automate jobs and concentrate control of the emerging digital economy in fewer hands. Coursera cofounder Andrew Ng, a real AI researcher who used to be chief scientist at Chinese tech company Baidu, weighed in on the latter issue Tuesday.
“As an AI insider, having built and shipped a lot of AI products, I don’t see a clear path for AI to surpass human-level intelligence,” Ng told attendees at a Harvard Business Review event, VentureBeat reported. “I think that job displacement is a huge problem, and the one that I wish we could focus on, rather than be distracted by these science fiction-ish, dystopian elements.”
“I’ve been in a lot of private conversations with AI leaders, or business leaders who are working on new AI products that will wipe out tens of thousands of jobs in a single company, maybe more across multiple companies,” he added. “And the interesting thing is that a lot of people whose jobs are squarely in the crosshairs of the technologies, a lot of people doing the jobs that are about to go away, they don’t understand AI, they don’t have the training to understand AI.”
“And so a lot of people whose jobs are going to go away don’t know that they’re in the crosshairs,” Ng concluded.
Some 5.6 million US manufacturing jobs disappeared from 2000 to 2010, according to a recent study by the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University, with approximately 85 percent of those losses “actually attributable to technological change — largely automation.” Estimates vary, but they largely agree that a huge slice of US jobs could be lost to technology—somewhere between 38 to 47 percent of all employment in the country is at high risk.
That falls in line with Ng’s warning early AI-like technologies such as machine learning are putting a lot of jobs commonly assumed to be the continued domain of humans at risk. Researchers in the field have been sounding this warning for years. A 2013 Oxford University study on computerisation identified a number of high-risk professions ranging from traffic technicians and medical records technicians to loan officers, nuclear reactor operators and technical writers.
Risk is just risk, and some recent research suggests automation and computerization of US jobs has slowed down lately in part because wages have remained so low workers are cheaper than fancy new toys. But on another point, Ng is right: Polls show Americans tend to be optimistic that this trend won’t kill their jobs, just those of other poor saps. That did not work out so well for the taxi industry.
High concept futurist drama over whether or not machines will kill or save us all grab headlines. But the more immediate concern is already here: Figuring out how to keep the economy working for most of us before people like Musk and Zuckberg run away with all our money.