In a recent post for for Locus Magazine, Cory Doctorow laid out his scepticism about general AI in a piece entitled ‘Full Employment‘. He argued that there is no sign that a general AI – one that can replicate human adaptability in tasks – is on the horizon. And that the work required to address climate change is so great that we are much more likely to see full employment than the AI-driven unemployment that many have predicted.
I disagree with Doctorow’s analysis of AI. Right now, I don’t believe that we are close to a general AI. I am more open minded than Doctorow about the idea that current AI systems have the capability to ‘evolve’ into something more generally capable, but the gap remains large.
My criticism is that I just don’t think AI has to be very sophisticated in order to replace humans in the workplace. It’s an argument that I have made many times on this blog, so I won’t repeat it in too much detail here. Suffice to say that if you break any job down into its component tasks, today’s machines are eminently capable of handling many of them. If you accept that machines take work – tasks, rather than jobs – then you can see that the remaining work can be redistributed among a smaller number of humans.
Where I don’t disagree with Doctorow is on the scale of the challenge presented by climate change. I have little doubt that large portions of humanity will be involved with the mitigation response. But the idea that this will offset any job losses due to automation brings me back to one of the most difficult parts of futurism: seeing not what, but when.
Even before the pandemic, I was concerned about our prospects for the next 20-30 years. While it’s not quite the apocalypse, there are four modern horsemen of disaster racing to cause us problems.
- Climate: In this period, directly or indirectly, climate change will start to affect the more moderate climates. Changes in weather patterns, disruption to agriculture, sea level rises. Until this point climate change has been something most people could ignore, should they so choose. This choice is going away in the next few decades.
- Technology: The prospect of technological disruption to employment and the economy is another major issue. Whether you want to generously call it AI, or prefer the perhaps more accurate ‘machine learning and robotics’, there is the potential for swathes of workers to be displaced by machines in the next three decades, from administrative, customer service, logistics and manual roles.
- Politics: We are in a rancorous period of global relations. Violence so far has been primarily inside borders rather than between them. But our international trading relationships are collapsing and our diplomatic ties being strained. And domestic leaders in many countries seem to be incompetent, mad, corrupt, vicious, or some combination of all of these.
- Disease: The latest addition to the line-up is the global pandemic, spreading effortlessly through our international connections, strained as they are. It’s unlikely to end quickly and we are likely to see more of its type.
The horsemen analogy falls down when it comes to timing. This isn’t about which of these potential challenges will win a race to reach us. All four are here already. The question is the speed and scale at which their effects will be felt.
A race to the finish
Doctorow might be right. Our climate mitigation efforts might start well before we adopt robotics and ML technologies to a level that severely disrupts the labour market. Or he might not. The scale of job losses in the retail sector right now are pretty dramatic. We could attribute these to the pandemic, but really this is just the acceleration a trend towards automation and self-service that has been rolling for years. The pandemic may accelerate the adoption of automation technologies in the retail supply chain and logistics. It might also accelerate their adoption in other fields – administration, customer service, finance, law… Once people are out of the office, perhaps we will be less squeamish about replacing them with machines?
Even if you ignore the technological effects, the pandemic has clearly had a terrible effect on our economy. Many are bracing themselves for job losses in the coming months. During lockdown almost 150,000 people have been made redundant and over 9m have been furloughed. This doesn’t even include the many self-employed who sit outside the support schemes or many not be counted as having lost their jobs, despite their income having collapsed. Full employment feels like a long way from here.
This is especially true in the current turbulent political environment where it is hard to see coordinated efforts to restore global prosperity. Or for that matter, a coherent effort to address climate change. If we were to start that process now, I can see the creation of an enormous number of jobs that might redress the losses currently being experienced. But it feels more likely to me that these efforts won’t start until the effects really start to bite. That is the nature of our politics right now: always focused on today not tomorrow.
In the meantime, it is going to be a difficult few years, whichever of the horsemen is leading the race.