The AI revolution, is it taking our jobs, even our Non-Executive Director ones? 29 Sep 2016

Recently, I read an article detailing how a Hong Kong based venture capital firm, Deep Knowledge Ventures, had appointed a computer algorithm to its board of directors.  The programme, called Vital will vote on investment decisions after analysing lots of data.

This got me thinking, if even a Non-Executive Director role can (in some, small way) be performed by a computer algorithm, what other jobs (and in what proportion) are under threat?   There are a wealth of articles on the subject and having waded through a number of them, I thought I would try to summarise some of the salient points.

TechRepublic spoke to an economist from MIT, Erik Brynjolfsson who is the co-author of The Second Machine Age, a book that ask what jobs will be left once software can drive cars and translate speech. http://www.techrepublic.com/article/ai-is-destroying-more-jobs-than-it-creates-what-it-means-and-how-we-can-stop-it/

The article is very interesting, referencing a comment by Intel co-founder, Gordon Moore, who spotted that the number of transistors packed into a chip doubles every 18 months.  He made that comment 40 years ago and now the transistor count of computer processors has climbed from 2,300 to more than four billion and with each doubling comes a leap in the level of logic the chip can handle.

Brynjolfsson highlights a number of technologies that are taking jobs away from human workers:  Rethink Robotics have Baxter (http://www.rethinkrobotics.com/products/baxter), a robotic humanoid torso complete with arms, claw-like grips and a head with an LED face.  Baxter has been designed to replace factory line workers employed in repetitive but as-yet not automated tasks, for example inserting large components into circuit boards.  Baxter’s “hands” can be swapped out for suction cups or different grippers to allow him to take on different tasks, opening up the possiblility of automating a swathe of new roles.

Other job stealers include: 

In the warehouse: Kiva Systems (http://www.mwpvl.com/html/kiva_systems.html) have developed knee high robots designed to lift items from shelving.
In the office: the Double telepresence robot (http://www.doublerobotics.com/) gives you a physical presence in the office when you can’t be there.

On the road: Google’s self-driving car. Drivers could be reduced to merely “babysitting” a computer that controls the vehicle for the majority of the journey.

Call centre operators:  being replaced by question-answering, automated systems like IBM’s quiz-show winning Watson (http://www.techrepublic.com/article/ibm-watson-the-inside-story-of-how-the-jeopardy-winning-supercomputer-was-born-and-what-it-wants-to-do-next/)

An article in Business Insider (http://uk.businessinsider.com/robots-will-steal-your-job-citi-ai-increase-unemployment-inequality-2016-2) references a recent research note by Citibank and co-authored by two co-directors and a research fellow of the University of Oxford’s policy school, entitled “Technology at work:V2.0.” It concludes that “35% of jobs in the UK are at risk of being replaced by automation; 47% of US jobs are at risk, and across the OECD as a whole an average of 57% of jobs are at risk.  In China, the risk of automation is as high as 77%.

“Most of the jobs at risk are low-skilled service jobs like call centres or in manufacturing industries.  But increasingly skilled jobs are at risk of being replaced.  The next big thing in financial technology at the moment is “roboadvice” – algorithms that can recommend savings and investment products to someone in the same way a financial adviser would.  If roboadvisers take off it could lead to huge upheavals in that high-skilled profession.”

Should any of this surprise us?  I think not.  In 1983 the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Wassily Leontief stated that “the role of humans as the most important factor of production is bound to diminish in the same way that the role of horses in agricultural production was first diminished and then eliminated by the introduction of tractors.”

John Maynard Keynes forecast a period of technological unemployment as an inevitable outcome of society discovering ways to make labour more efficient more rapidly than finding new uses for labour.

So, are there any roles that will benefit?

Brynjolfsson and the study by the Oxford University policy school identify three broad areas that (at least in the short to medium term) will be immune to the effects of automation.

Manual roles

They argue that despite many manual roles being low-paid, this type of work is likely to remain resistant to automation.  Some of these jobs are difficult for robots to complete – even walking on an uneven floor can be problematic.  This phenomenon is known as Moravec’s Paradox, an observation by leading AI researchers in the 1980s that computers found hard the tasks we found easy and vice versa.  So cooks, gardeners, repairmen, carpenters, dentists should be safe in the short term!

Creative roles

Brynjolfsson believes that digital technology complements the creative industries – you can access a wide audience so easily.  So the Justin Biebers and the Zoellas of the future should be prospering for a while.

Interpersonal

Machines are not very good at motivating, nurturing, caring and comforting people, so industries that need human interaction should also continue to need to employ humans for a while.  Good news for those in sales, nursing, teaching etc.

I think the role of the Non-Executive Director should remain immune to the rise of the robots for a few years yet!