The media is full of articles today about the possible negative effects of machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and robots replacing the human workforce, enslaving mankind or ultimately wiping out the human race.
Are we all doomed? Is it time to hit the panic button? Or is it time to relax listening to some nice music? Given the choice, I would certainly go for the music.
Will we invent the technology that will ultimately replace us? I cannot give a definitive answer to that. Nobody can. But I can comment on the rising use of “smart” technology in the workplace and the positive effects that this will have.
To put it into perspective, Industry 4.0 could have an impact similar to that of Agriculture 1.0, the foundation of farming. One way to look at the history of human development is that the “invention” of farming put thousands of hunter gatherers out of business overnight (well, within a season or two anyway). And hunter gathering was probably the only employment option on offer at the time.
But after a period of adjustment - and there will also be an Industry 4.0 period of adjustment - the huge contribution of farming was that people were freed up to develop deeper skills in other areas, from building or plumbing to eventually becoming doctors, scientists, lawyers and tax advisors. Who can argue against progress like that?
It can be said that every industrial revolution starts with uncertainty for some people, followed by a period of adjustment after which society is able to enjoy the benefits. Computers and software in general have led to many changes in the workplace, in the way we work, in our productivity and so, ultimately, in our societies’ well-being. Artificial intelligence (AI) is simply the next wave, perhaps with a broader impact - a huge opportunity for new, more sustainable business models and production processes which will make a huge positive impact on a global scale.
Yes, Industry 4.0, based on emerging AI technologies, will raise the level of value that humans will have to compete with in the employment market. This can be a wonderful development for humankind as possibly millions of repetitive, dirty and downright dangerous jobs can be performed by robots or devices guided by smarter software - in tandem with smarter humans. There will very likely be a period of employment adjustment, possibly bigger than any we have seen in recent centuries, and we as a society need to act today if the “digital divide” is not to become the deciding factor in the possibility of gaining employment.
If this transition is sensibly managed, then the future of AI in industry will be huge boon, and boom, to people in many walks of life. For example, there will be robot assistants in aircraft manufacturing (they are already in surgery), robot miners eliminating hazardous human jobs, robot accountants taking the drudgery out of repetitive audit activities. All these can free humans up to operate at a higher value-add – if the retraining is available of course.
Retraining, or lifelong learning, will be paramount. Many ideas are in circulation on how to implement and finance this but one favorite idea is that robot employees should also have to pay a standard “income tax” – money that could be used to retrain replaced people.
This is not to trivialize a serious issue. There is, I believe, a natural limiting factor to a 100% robot workforce. In all the material I have seen with robots replacing humans in different future scenarios, I have never seen one with the robot replacing a human as a consumer. Can you imagine a robot buying flowers for another robot, flying with it to the Caribbean for a romantic week on the beach and drinking cocktails in the evening? Or going hiking in the Alps, skiing in the Rockies or indulging in a wine tour of Bordeaux? I just don’t see it happening.
Consumption will remain human (this is a definite prediction!) and therefore wealth has to remain with humans. Factories producing goods or services for humans that cannot afford to use them will simply go bankrupt. There will be a natural level of automation that beyond which it will be uneconomical to extend. What is this level? Working this out will define the period of adjustment I have referred to and it will be a rolling period of constant adjustment as today’s innovative technologies will not slow.
It is up to all of us to ensure that the “future will be evenly spread,” that the benefits of AI and smart automation reach as many as possible. Society must start the discussion about the Industry 4.0 transformation and its impact now.
Your comment can be the first contribution!