Are robots really taking our jobs?

May 15, 2015
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While some are making fun of today’s pocket-sized artificial-intelligence (AI) systems, leading scientists and IT figures such as Steve Wozniak, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates recently warned the world about super-intelligent machines as potential threats to humanity.

Killer robots and the use of AI in military have been the focus, but what are the implications for current university degrees? Which streams would most likely be reshaped – or even made obsolete – by thinking machines of the future?

Robots and automation have been around for 50-odd years, first appearing on General Motors’ factory floor in the US. However, their use has traditionally been in low-skilled jobs to assist human workers with tedious and heavy manual labour. When it comes to high-skilled or knowledge-based jobs requiring tertiary qualifications, however, it may be the rise of AI becoming threat number one. Google AI expert Ray Kurzweil even predicted AI systems could be smarter than humans by 2029.

Let’s start off by noting the difference between robotisation (or automation) and AI.

“AI is purely a smart-software construct that is intangible, while automation involves the actual hardware of the robots for manual work,” says Peter Corke, Professor of Robotic Vision at the Queensland University of Technology, who adds that that warning bells are ringing.

“I don’t think people saw it coming – everyone used to think that white-collar jobs would be safe from robots and automation.”

In early December 2014, a report by the Department of Industry found that up to 500,000 jobs in Australia are at risk of AI replacement, with accountants topping the list (since computational methods can do faster and more accurately than the human mind) and pharmacists also deemed under threat. Two high-skilled areas in which AI is already making strides are journalism and surgical procedures.

'Journalism AI systems have the potential to more accurately and quickly write news stories such as sports and finance that rely heavily on data.'

In journalism, smart algorithms that consume data and spit out automatic news stories without human involvement have arrived. Narrative Science – a data analysis technology that transforms numbers into narratives - is a great example of how this might take place.

“Journalism AI systems have the potential to more accurately and quickly write news stories such as sports and finance that rely heavily on data,” says Toby Walsh, a professor in AI at National ICT Australia and the University of NSW.

However Verity Chambers, a former Fairfax and News Ltd journalist and Master of Arts student majoring in journalism at Charles Sturt University, says the more interesting and meaningful news stories are not merely re-presentation of data.

[Journalism] is a skilled retelling of human stories, so I think there's a place for both—AI in the gathering and translation of statistics and other data and human reporting in showing us meanings,” she says.

In the medical world, robot-assisted prostate cancer surgery has become common according to Ross Dawson, futurist and chief executive of Advanced Human Technologies Group, who compiled the Intel Security: Safeguarding the Future of Digital Australia in 2025 report.

Another medical field that may get eroded is radiography, says Professor Corke.

“Looking at images and making decisions can be done by AI now, and probably more accurately and efficient than a radiographer can,” he says.

 These programs can even paint well enough to be exhibited at art galleries.

Even the arts, which is seemingly safe due to the high level of expressions of creativity and intuition required, may fall victim to AI. The painting software AARON has been researched and developed since the 70s, while a more recent addition is The Painting Fool. These programs can even paint well enough to be exhibited at art galleries.

Professor Walsh says one of the myths of AI and creativity is that they are mutually exclusive.

“People used to think, ‘we’ll be safe because a computer can do this and that, but it can’t be creative’, but there are examples where computers have shown to be creative,” he says.

Is it all just fearmongering, or could we still have some control of AI and use it responsibly?

Rob Sparrow, associate professor at the Philosophy Department of Monash University, argues that we’ll need to consider the ethical issues about giving meaningful work to humans.

“There are definitely some political and ethical issues about how we would want to redistribute jobs should some disappear to robots,” he says.

He contends that AI is unlikely to decimate human jobs as much as depicted in sci-fi literature and popular culture. Instead, it may complement human abilities. 

"If AI does increase, then it’s more about reshaping jobs instead of taking over them completely, so I don’t see any immediate dangers to current university degrees," he says.

Verity Chambers is similarly optimistic, and reminds us of the existing history between technology and journalism.

"I'm not feeling threatened by it. They thought television would kill newspapers, but it didn't. Sure, newspapers are being slowly killed by the Internet, but journalism isn't. Technology means we can have better journalism and storytelling than ever before."

Toby Vue

Toby is a Master of Arts (journalism) student at Charles Sturt University. He tweets at @tobyvue.

Image: Steven Gerner, Flickr Creative Commons license