Will a robot take your job? The prophets of doom have so far held the upper hand in this debate. But a new report from the World Economic Forum suggests that the opposite is going to be true. Rather than destroy jobs, robots and artificial intelligence will actually create jobs for us…

By Mark Richards.

Last time we wrote about robots and artificial intelligence (AI) the glass was very definitely half-empty. In fact, it wasn’t so much half-empty as draining away fast. Flashback to November last year and the BBC was cheerfully reporting on a study by the McKinsey Global Institute, stating that robots could take 800m jobs – roughly one-fifth of the jobs in the world – by 2030. According to the study up to a third of workers in countries like the US and Germany would lose their jobs, with machine operators and food processors among those worst hit.

But 800m jobs worldwide? In reality, that would affect everyone and signal a huge global downturn in demand, which would, in turn, lead to more job losses…

Now though, it appears that the glass is very definitely half-full. Robots are going to create more jobs and give us more time off.

Machines will create jobs

Right back to the Luddites in the early 19th Century, people have always feared the ‘rise of the machines’ – that as technology progresses, so it will take more and more jobs.

This new report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) is suggesting exactly the opposite: that for every job destroyed by a machine by 2022 the technological advances will create two more – a net gain of 58m jobs worldwide.

Really this should have come as no surprise. Three years ago a study by the economists Deloittes – based on data going back to 1871 – found the technological advances had consistently led to greater demand and more jobs. But, the study pointed out, the debate has always been skewed towards the “job-destroying effects of change, which are more easily observed than [the jobs] created.”

What a machine can do for you…

The WEF also predicted that the technological advances will “vastly improve” the productivity of existing jobs, leaving us humans to more meaningful and interesting tasks and – in all likelihood – with more leisure time.

At the moment machines account for 29% of the hours worked in major industries. The WEF predict that by 2022 (and that is only four years away) that figure will have risen to 42%, but the hours worked by people declining from 71% to 58%.

So while that raises the possibility of a shorter working week, there is inevitably bad news along with the good. Some jobs will disappear entirely. The WEF is predicting that 75m jobs will go, but 133m new jobs will be created, to give the net gain of 58m.

The challenge for governments

The WEF stressed that governments will need to be ready to re-train and re-skill people: education is going to be more important than ever. Workers will also need to be more mobile – getting a new job may well mean re-locating. And there will also be a challenge for the government in managing people’s expectations and their perception of what is happening.

What do the British public think of the changes?

It may be good news from the WEF, but the British people seem unconvinced. Recent research from the New Scientist revealed the following findings:

  • 30% of people think that artificial intelligence will fuel economic growth
  • 37% fear that it will increase inequality
  • 53% fear that AI will become smarter than humans

If 53% fear that AI could become smarter than us then it is a fair bet that nearly 100% of people think it will ultimately be smarter than us. And therein lies the challenge for governments and legislators. If they ignore the changes that are coming they will open the door to populist leaders promising a return to the “good old days.” Politicians need to focus on the potential gains of AI and robotics – but also prepare for the disruption that will inevitably come.

But it is Monday morning: let us not leave the debate on that gloomy note. Let us instead look at a crucial question in the development of AI and robotics – and a key question in their interaction with us.

Can a robot have a sense of humour?

Could Robots Create more Jobs than they Take?

At first glance, this may seem like a flippant question. But it is important. Being able to interact with humans in a completely natural way is the next stage of robotic/AI development – and a sense of humour would mark a ‘great leap forward’ in the development of robots.

As some regular readers will know, we have an Amazon Echo and we use her – essentially – as a glorified timer (as I am fairly certain the majority of people do). The problem is that Alexa is so boring: in addition, she has not really progressed in the last two years. I am sure the developers would disagree, but that is most people’s perception.

Alexa needs a sense of humour: she can tell you a joke but, bluntly, when Amazon is still sending out e-mails saying that Alexa can tell you today’s date there is clearly a long way to go.

So could a robot, or an AI application, ever genuinely have a sense of humour? Could it tell jokes spontaneously?

“This is a huge task, and I am not entirely sure it is manageable,” says Wladyslaw Chlopicki, the President of the International Society for Humour Studies, quoted in the Economist magazine. (No, I did not believe there was such an organisation either – so here is the link.)

But it looks like ol’ Wladyslaw could be in for a shock – and that Alexa may need to up her game. The power of AI lies in its ability to compile and synthesize vast amounts of information very quickly. It could, for example, store all the known jokes about a particular subject. Apparently, the human mind can only recall 100 jokes at most – which surprises me, as I can barely get into double figures.

A robot, or an AI application, could store all the jokes around a particular subject, grade them according to the response they got and adapt them to make them topical and relevant. Whatever the humourists think, the simple fact is that a robot could soon be funnier than your mother-in-law – and that will have huge implications for jobs…