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Emerging questions about artificial intelligence

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Artificial intelligence, or AI for short, has created quite a buzz in the last decade and the noise has increased recently. A 2013 research report titled The Future of Employment from the University of Oxford Martin Institute estimated that half of all U.S. jobs could be made obsolete in the coming years.

Some people have gone further and state that almost all jobs which require repetition and number crunching could become fair game for AI and may be liable for replacement. What’s different about the current wave of automation is that the combination of advanced mobile robotics and sensors and sophisticated machine learning algorithms and neural networks will allow for the automation of both cognitive and manual, repetitive and non-repetitive tasks.

As always, the picture is not all doom and gloom and many point out the benefits of AI and how AI could assist humans in areas where human skill and intuition are required and become a work-horse for laborious and dangerous jobs which people may not want to do.

For example, AI and robotics are already making headway in healthcare with the likes of the DaVinci surgical robot, allowing trained surgeons to deftly manipulate robotic arms to perform pinhole surgery which sometimes allows patients to recover much faster and with less complications than traditional surgery.

Artificial intelligence is having a dramatic impact in developing countries and promises to change their economies of those countries drastically.

For example, in India, the information technology boom which started in the 2000’s has created thousands of jobs and helped India to become one of the fastest growing countries in the world. In the heydays of the IT boom, outsourcing companies were hiring thousands of graduates straight out of college, providing them salaries which only graduates from top schools were able to garner. That kind of growth is on the wane and there are now reports which state that automation is having a big impact on lower level jobs in the IT sector, the type of jobs which college graduates looking to build a career in the industry use as a stepping stone to more stable jobs.

The Economic Times, a leading business newspaper from India reports that the Indian IT industry will create about 250,000 jobs this year, down from 300,000 the previous year and have a downward trend. IT outsourcing majors like Tata Consultancy Services have said that they are going for “agile recruiting, or on-demand hiring, owing to increased automation in the software delivery process.”

The paper also said that “AI and automation will result in a reduction of 7-10% of IT employees by 2022 in India, according to a study by HfS Research. India’s IT industry employs nearly 3.9 million people. ”

All of this is not limited to one country, or industry, it will have an impact everywhere. Already, there are reports of machines reading X-rays and churning out reports with relative accuracy and many have predicted that whole areas of medical work may get automated in the future. Uber has started trials for self driving cars and many other companies are in the race for self driving vehicles and trucks.

But the scenario is not all doom and gloom. It needs to be said that available evidence that AI may meaningfully take over and automate substantial portions of employment is limited and most of the predictions are based on projections of future research. Dr. Ewan McGaughey, in an interview with WikiTribune, said that AI has the potential to create a lot of jobs and allow employees the time to focus on more meaningful work due to the repetitive and lower level work getting automated.

Jia Li, who leads research and development at Google Cloud, reveals that according to her research, AI can automate only a small part of a radiologist’s work due to the complexities involved and the varied data that needs to be consulted.

William Boulding, dean of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University told the Economic Times that fears of job loss are overblown. But he did concede that although some types of work may become obsolete, newer jobs would fill its place. According to him, human interfaces with machines, along with intellectual and emotional quotient, will drive employment in the coming years. Attributes like human judgement and creativity will be key to getting well-paid jobs — and something which cannot be automated.

Many solutions to the inevitable job loss, however small or large, have been proposed. One prominent solution is UBI. UBI stands for Universal Basic Income, it is a system where citizens are given a basic income every month. The reasoning behind this system is that when the basic needs of a person are taken cared off, he or she can then fulfill their potential to the fullest. If they do not have to worry about basic food and shelter, then they can do the things that they really want to do. So if a person, a trucker, for example, loses a job to an automated truck, he or she can apply for universal basic income and then be retrained for another job.

This type of a system is a great way to solve a problem of unemployment, it may have some problems if the unemployment due to automation is on a mass scale. It may cause resentment in people who lose jobs en masse, while a minority enjoy a much more luxurious lifestyle. Dr. Macgaughey suggests that one option for Govt.s to look at would be to ensure a more equitable distribution of capital and keep a check on who owns the technology. It could be achieved through taxation and collective bargaining, such as by forming unions.

Nothing is full proof and certain as we are talking about how things will be in the future. But this is an area of social policy which needs a thorough look in before it is too late.

 

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