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They’re coming!

David Ruccio

As everyone knows, robots and artificial intelligence are coming. The question is, what effects will they have on us? In particular, will they replace workers and lead to massive unemployment? And what about the other workers, the ones who manage to keep their jobs?

According to Moshe Vardi, in a speech delivered to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “AI (artificial intelligence) could drive global unemployment to 50%, wiping out middle-class jobs and exacerbating inequality.”

Unlike the industrial revolution, Vardi said, “the AI revolution” will not be a matter of physically powerful machines that outperform human labourers, but rather a contest between human wit and mechanical intelligence and strength. In China the question has already affected thousands of jobs, as electronics manufacturers, Foxconn and Samsung among them, develop precision robots to replace human workers.

An Oxford University survey has suggested that 47 per cent of the world’s jobs will be taken by robots in the coming decades. What’s involved and which jobs are most at risk?

This is a big issue that is not science fiction and is happening already. It involves what we call narrow artificial intelligence, which can do relatively routine, predictable things. By predict- able, I mean you can predict what a person doing a job is going to be doing based on that they’ve done in the past.

Martin Ford, author of Rise Of The Robots: Technology and The Threat Of A Jobless Future, also foresees dire consequences for workers. Here are some excerpts of an interview with him by National Geographic:


Like flipping burgers?

It could be flipping burgers or a lot of factory and warehouse jobs like stocking shelves. One of the most dramatic impacts isn’t going to involve actual robots. It’s going to involve software. Some of the people most threatened are what we might call office drones: people who sit in front of computers doing relatively routine, formulaic things.

If your job is to produce the same kinds of reports again and again, software is getting smarter and better at doing that. We already have lots of examples, even in journalism. There’s smart software that is able to write basic news stories. Lots of white-collar jobs held by college graduates are going to be threatened.

What will the effect on the world economy be?

In the long run, it could have a dramatic impact and I think we are beginning to see that already. As one eliminates workers and people become unemployed or their wages fall, consumers will have less purchasing power to buy the products and services produced by the economy. As a result, there will be less and less demand. Economists all over the world are talking about this issue.

For example, in Europe there are concerns about inflation because there is not enough demand for products and services. If you project this forward, there are going to be a lot of people who are either unemployed, under- employed, or struggling financially, who simply won’t have discretionary income to spend.

Massive unemployment is one problem associated with the increased use of robots and artificial intelligence. The other concerns workers who, for what- ever reason, are able to keep their jobs.

Think about the current situation at AT&T, which is seeking to retrain its workers and, at the same time, threatening to lay off up to one third of its workforce.


Eboni Bell is a 24-year-old product manager for smartphone software in AT&T’s Atlanta office, who sees the Vision 2020 retraining as the chance of a lifetime.

The company provided tuition assistance for much of her two-year Udacity/ Georgia Tech master’s degree in computer science, which it says cost $6,600. Single and childless, she does not mind the hours it takes. “ I leave the office at 7pm, work at home until midnight, and Saturdays/ Sundays are committed to school ” she said.

What we have, then, is a situation in which, as a consequence of robots and artificial intelligence, it’s quite possible that many workers will be made redundant, while workers who retain their jobs are going to face lower wages, increased workloads, and longer hours.

There’s nothing inevitable about these effects. It’s not robots and artificial intelligence per se that are going to negatively affect workers. What matters is how the robots and new kinds of software are created and utilized within the current set of economic institutions — as a way of increasing profits and exacerbating inequality.

We can, of course, imagine an entirely different set of effects — ways that robots and AI might serve to eliminate onerous tasks and lessen the amount of work we all have to do.

But that’s going to require fundamentally changing the existing set of economic institutions. That, and not robots and artificial intelligence, is the real challenge facing us.

Source: Real-World Economics Review blog, 16 Feb 2016

Dr David Ruccio is Professor of Economics at Notre Dame University, Indiana, USA.

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