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Why robots won’t be stealing your job or leaving you bankrupt

Artificial intelligence is not something to be feared, it’s the key to our future

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 July, 2017, 8:33pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 July, 2017, 11:11pm

There are two growing concerns about artificial intelligence, or AI. One is that the application of AI will lead to mass unemployment, and the other concern is that the technology will lead to a serious deterioration in wealth distribution. In my view, both concerns are unnecessary.

The great majority of service jobs are nowhere near replaceable by technology. AlphaGo can beat the best human chess player, but a human hand is needed to place the “stones” on the Go board.

It will take at least three decades – or a whole generation – before robots can take over jobs such as house cleaning or airplane cabin service.

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In a scenario where half of the current jobs are performed by AI by the year 2050, it could be expected that productivity and wages would have doubled, with the average annual income in the United States at a level of about US$100,000. People on higher incomes tend to spend more on education, health care and travel – and that in turn would generate additional demand for services which could create enough new jobs to absorb those that are replaced by AI.

Another fear is that greater use of AI will lead to worsening inequality because large companies can make bigger profits using AI and the improved efficiency it can bring.

But there is one inconvenient fact standing in the way of this argument. There have been many revolutionary technological breakthroughs throughout history that have improved efficiency and productivity, but few companies behind these great inventions went on to see sustained, extraordinary profits. Where are the businesses today behind the invention of the steam engine, computers or robots? Investors may enjoy decent profits at the start, but market competition will quickly flatten profit margins, and it is eventually consumers, not businesses, who gain from higher quality services at affordable prices.

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AI requires big data, and big companies may have advantages over small ones. But there are always many powerful players in any specific area. For instance, in the field of driverless cars, Google, Tesla, Uber and a number of Chinese businesses are jostling fiercely to take a leading role. And in a market with three or more competitors, it’s hard to maintain a super-high profit margin.

Humans are central to innovation, and that will remain the case for the foreseeable future. It’s dangerous to rely on computers for innovation, and it’s often the taste, preference and moral choice of humans that matters. If the job is about assessing a song, a movie or a new recipe, humans will always know better than a machine about taste.

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Some argue that innovation can be done by a few, without involving the masses, but this is wrong. We humans have been committing more resources and more capital to innovation, and there is no sign of this slowing down. In the future, a growing number of people will be willing and able to take part in creating and innovating – whether it’s AI programming or film reviewing. AI empowers people but it will never replace people.

In short, we don’t have to worry that engineers will be left jobless because of AI. And the widening salary gap between, say, data scientists and hotel cleaners is something that should be addressed by social welfare and improved education – helped by AI.

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There will be more service jobs in the future, and there will be more creative activities. So taking a long-term view, innovation will not only provide solutions to existing problems, it will also unlock the future. While demand for food and shelter is limited, human interest in new toys, new stories, new games and the unknown is boundless.

So if us humans don’t have the guts to embrace new technologies, our civilisation will suffer. And that’s a far more serious concern than the wealth gap.

The author is the chairman of online travel service provider Ctrip.com