My Take

In the world of AI no one’s job is that safe

Warning by Oxford economist that machines will drive down wages and force up unemployment is enough to turn me into a Luddite

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 September, 2017, 11:46pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 September, 2017, 11:46pm

When it comes to artificial intelligence, many of us are Luddites. I, for one, am starting to understand why 19th century British textile workers felt the need to smash up weaving machines.

The feeling that your job, however skilful, is in danger of becoming redundant is highly demoralising. That is the real danger at the dawn of AI when it’s clear technology will replace many of our skill sets, including those previously considered uniquely human.

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Some experts have recently warned that Hong Kong is lagging in updating laws and regulations to protect people when AI is used. One example cited is AI discrimination against a pregnant woman because she would not be optimal for the workforce as she would require maternity leave.

It strikes me the real issue is not about pregnant workers, but not hiring any workers at all. I have just had a novel experience talking to a chatbot about my credit card. I inquired on my phone about the sum I owed this month and the deadline for payment. The chatbot answered all my questions, but not before authenticating my identity by asking for my date of birth and email address.

A new paper published by Oxford economist Daniel Susskind is warning that recent research has been too optimistic about AI. Such research “exploring the consequences of technological change on the labour market supports an optimistic view about the threat of automation”, he says.

But the reality, Susskind argues, is far more pessimistic. He predicts “increasingly capable machines [will] drive down relative wages and the labour share of income and force labour to specialise in a shrinking set of tasks”. In the worst case: “Wages steadily decline to zero. In the limit, labour is fully immiserated and ‘technological unemployment’ follows.”

While the paper is highly mathematical, the vision it presents is fully dystopian, and sadly, completely realistic.

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There will probably be no Terminator/Skynet outcome that leads to the extermination of humanity, as in the movies. But jobs are starting to disappear, even highly skilled ones.

Equities trading, for example, is now mostly done by machines. News reports can be written by software programs.

Those workers in the oldest profession may be replaceable. Surveys in Japan have found men increasingly prefer solitary gratification, and more and more ingenious hi-tech sex devices are being produced. Even prostitutes can be put out of work.