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14 fallacies of the coming robot apocalypse

Jobs that require resourcefulness and flexibility appear impervious to obsolescence


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I’ve encountered a number of warnings of the dangers of robots. The cautions seem to quickly escalate to imminent peril. Each of the writers seems to reach the same conclusion: that smart robots will soon be taking our jobs, and humanity is doomed.

The biggest misconception is that if we create intelligent systems, they will want to overthrow their human managers and take over the world.

We’ve seen this in the movies – evil robots with seriously global domination agendas. Technology is the bad guy and only Jeff Goldblum can save us.

A recent survey by SelectHub showed that 41 percent of Americans fear getting replaced by AI, automation and digitization, varying depending on age, gender and social status.

The victimization mindset grows as people worry about becoming irrelevant.

As a result, we have a burgeoning tech-wary community, fueled with paranoia, ready to halt, or at least limit progress.

Bill Gates recently suggested that robots should be taxed to offset the cost of humans losing their jobs:

“Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”

On the surface it would appear to be logical response to the almost daily announcements about jobs disappearing, and an easy campaign slogan for politicians. Yet, this line of thinking is problematic on many levels. 

Taxing robots 101

The dictionary definition of robot is rather broad, describing a robot as, “A machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer.”

If we use this definition, then robots will include everything from cars, to printers, elevators, clocks, tractors, forklifts, guns, lawnmowers, chainsaws, drones, and much more.

There’s a very fine line between a machine that is laborsaving and one that is job-killing. Nearly every patent filing includes at least one laborsaving claim in its extended description and this has been the status quo for some time.

Limits to automation

If we think about automation years from now, what are hard limits? What’s possible and what’s impossible?

So far we’ve been limited by technology and something called the Polanyi paradox, named after Karl Polanyi, an economist who, in 1966, concluded:

“We know more than we can tell.”

His paradox refers to the difficulty of automating an activity that we only understand implicitly, like painting a picture, writing a persuasive argument, or dancing.

We can’t automate what we can’t understand.

For now, professions that require resourcefulness, flexibility and creativity still appear to be impervious to obsolescence.


14 fallacies of the coming robot apocalypse

1. Robots are destroying jobs.

Robots don’t eliminate jobs, only tasks.

Automation kills parts of jobs and eliminates the needs for certain skills, but entire jobs are far more complex.

2. Automation has already destroyed many jobs. 

According to a recent report by Harvard economist James Bessen, automation has only caused one job to go totally extinct over the past 67 years – elevator operators.

Of 270 occupations listed in the 1950 U.S. Census, elevator operator is the only position that no longer exists due to automation.

Another 32 jobs were done in by a loss of demand, and five became technologically obsolete.

3. Automation will soon eliminate my job.

Rather, automation is forcing companies to redefine jobs.

The primary affect of automation will be the redefinition of them. As the skills and tasks required in the economy change, our response should not be alarmist, but a strategic investment in education

ATM machines did replace many of the tasks that bank tellers performed, but not all of them. As a result, ATMs enabled tellers to be more efficient doing other things.

4. Automation is reducing our opportunity for finding a job.

The textile industry is a great example of this phenomenon. The number of weaving jobs has increased since the 19th century. As automation drove the price of cloth down, the lower prices increased demand, and resulted in job growth.

5. With automation, there will be nothing left for humans to do.

Non-automated tasks will become more valuable.

Automation is more likely to take over repetitive tasks, allowing skilled workers more time to do the things that require talent.

In an emergency room setting, if diagnosis can be automated, doctors can focus on specialized, one-off cases, increasing the overall number of patients treated.

6. There will soon be a robot knocking on my door to take my job.

It’s easy to start blaming robots for the decisions made by their owners.

Yes, it may be possible to build autonomous robots in the future that can operate independently, but that will be in a distant future, and in all likelihood, many things will go wrong.

From my vantage point, it’s very difficult to imagine a robot that is capable of taking initiative, and continually develops and redevelops its own role, purpose, and mission independent of any human agenda.

Keep in mind that with the cars we’re currently driving, it’s taken 120 years of reimagining them to get to the vehicles we have today. Even though things are speeding up and we are going through exponential growth in product development cycles, the kinds of robots we’re imagining are exponentially more complicated than any manmade device so far.

7. A conscious robot means it will work and act like a human.

At this point we don’t even know what consciousness is let alone how to integrate it into artificial intelligence.

8. An intelligent robot will share the same feelings as humans.

Emotions are the affect of low-level/instinctive drives and the anticipations of rewards. They are the mechanisms we use to place value on the objects around us. Yes, we can replicate emotions on a certain level, but artificial love will still lack many of the quirky trace characteristics that make us human.

9. Intelligent robots will want to overthrow the human race.

No they don’t. This seems to be a reoccurring theme in countless Hollywood movies, but few are asking the most relevant question of “then what?” If they somehow manage to conquer humans and only machines remain, then what? 

10. Smart robots will be thinking machines.

Naturally this depends on your definition of thinking, but the human brain is extraordinarily complex, with around 100 billion neurons and 1,000 trillion synaptic interconnections. The brain is not digital. Rather, mental capabilities are dependent on electrochemical signals with inter-related timing and analog mechanisms, the sort of molecular and biological machinery that we are only just now starting to understand. Simulated thinking is still a long way away in robots and will be a far cry from the way humans think.

11. Robots will soon be competing for your job.

Robots don’t come with a built-in desire to compete. They only do what they’re told.

12. A.I. will be able to solve all of our problems.

Yes, some emerging A.I. systems will be able to solve some of our problems some of the time, but they will also create new ones. Every machine wears out. 

13. We will always be able to tell the difference between humans and future robots by peeling back their skin.

I only included this because it’s a common theme in science fiction. Future robots will likely be cloned or grown in the image of living, breathing beings.

14. Robots are forever.

All computer systems fail eventually. This means that someone will need to be there to make repairs, pick up the pieces, and perform scheduled maintenance.

Yes machines can fix machines, like human fix humans, but at some point, all systems eventually fail, just as humans do.

Final Thoughts

We have seen what machines can do and it’s making us all very nervous.

However, it’s important to understand that if a profession is completely automated, yes, jobs will be eliminated. But if the process is only partial, eliminating only tasks rather than entire positions, employment for those jobs may in fact increase because of the efficiency gains and possible impact on demand.

Fewer than 5 percent of the jobs in the U.S. today can be completely automated using current technology.

Yes, we will have to learn many new skills to stay relevant and competitive in the future, and future robots will be able to do things we never dreamed possible. But for now, there are many areas where tacit skills create safe ground for future employment.

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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