If you believe the greatest minds alive today, artificial intelligence (AI) could be set to make humans obsolete. Professor Stephen Hawking goes as far as saying, “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”
The inaugural Australian Industry Report, released in December by the federal government, suggests up to half a million jobs – many of them tertiary educated white collar jobs – are at risk of automation, ranging from accountants to supermarket cashiers, secretaries, bank tellers and even pharmacists. It mirrors an Oxford University study, which predicted that 47 per cent of jobs would be put at risk over the next two decades because of technology.
For blue collar workers, that automated future has already arrived. At Australia’s ports, the stevedore workforce has been cut dramatically and replaced by 27 robots. E-commerce platform Catch of the Day employs just four people and 70 robots in its Melbourne warehouse. In NSW, dedicated train ticket sellers will soon be a thing of the past as commuters shift to the Opal card.
But while machines and algorithms are replacing many jobs, what the doomsayers often ignore is that new jobs are being created in industries that didn’t previously exist, and labour is more mobile than ever. Furthermore, over the long term, increased automation leads to higher productivity, cheaper goods and higher disposable incomes.
I’m a tecnho-optimist and believe the future of work will move towards automation of some key processes, but it doesn’t spell the end of humanity. Rather, it will free humanity to pursue more creative and value-adding pursuits. The goal should not be full automation – imagine a world in which we were all released from having to work or contribute to society. That would not be a very satisfying or fulfilling existence.
Companies like Uber and Google often focus solely on technological efficiencies, saying that by automating everything into a robotic singularity then humans will be released to work purely on creative work. This is very convenient for companies that will make mountains of money by replacing human labour with automation. In fact, in May, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick indicated he would be happy to replace the human element in his service altogether saying, “When there is no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere is cheaper. Even on a road trip.”