As different institutions and firms have conflicting analyses and forecasts there is no short answer, nor a unique one even because of differing assumptions and huge uncertainty about the future. A widely circulated paper published in 2013 by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne from Oxford University estimated that 47% of jobs in the US was at risk from automation; whereas a report issued by the OECD in 2016 concluded that across 21 of its member-countries, on average only 9% of jobs could be automated. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum also reported its estimates: automation and technological advancements could lead to a total loss of 7.1 million and a total gain of two million jobs.
The conventional view is that routine office and factory work is most vulnerable to automation. However, the findings of the McKinsey Global Institute’s report on automation, employment and productivity are more nuanced: a detailed analysis of 2,000+ work activities for over 800 occupations on the US labor market revealed that even the highest-paid occupations, including physician and senior executive, have a significant amount of activity that can be automated. An article jointly published by authors from four venture capital firms such as NewGen Capital and Samsung Ventures tells another story: creative activities such as art, science, and research could easily be automated, however many manual jobs like cleaning and farming are trickier to automate, because robots still don’t recognize and easily handle common objects.
With tech giants, startups and investors increasingly involved in the research and application of AI, ethical concerns and regulations are increasingly being discussed. In December 2016, Sam Altman (the president of Y Combinator) and Elon Musk launched OpenAI, a nonprofit open research platform dedicated to the subject. Less than one year later, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and IBM co-founded the Partnership on AI (Apple joined later), focused on establishing best practices for AI systems and educating the public.
Legislators are taking action too. In February 2017, the European Parliament approved a resolution to regulate the development of AI and robotics across the EU, including establishing ethical standards for AI development and introducing an insurance scheme to cover liability for accidents involving driverless cars.
There is yet more to ponder. In his book The Glass Cage Where Automation is Taking Us, Nicholas Carr warns that the dependence on automation will ultimately reduce humanity’s intelligence and curiosity: “If we’re not careful, the automation of mental labor, by changing the nature and focus of intellectual endeavor, may end up eroding one of the foundations of culture itself – our desire to understand the world.” He proposes that automated systems should require human participation in vital activities, allowing people to continuously develop their skills, a recommendation that chimes with a 2016 study by Japan’s Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry, suggesting that in order to accelerate the development and diffusion of AI-related technologies while maintaining employment opportunities, it is necessary to upgrade human capital through education and training.
Jeanne Yizhen Yin
Find more analysis articles & interviews in our 2017 Innovation, Technology & IP Report.