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Artificial Intelligence and the future of work

February 13, 2017 2:50 PM
By Nick Clegg in Evening Standard

There's a lot to worry about these days: hard Brexit, Trump's protectionism, promotion and relegation, Putin's manoeuvres, conflict in the South China Sea, Boris Johnson's next gaffe, climate change, writes Nick Clegg.

But I want you to spare a thought for US truck drivers. Because what happens to them might provide a better clue to what happens next in the world than the summit between Theresa May and Donald Trump.

According to one recent report, truck driving and related jobs employ more people than any other job in 29 out of America's 50 states. It is estimated that there are 8.7 million trucking-related jobs in the US. It is one of the few jobs which still attracts a fairly decent income - about $40 000 per year - without requiring higher academic qualifications. In other words, it's a precious ingredient to the American dream: a dependable job, accessible to everyone.

Except it might soon be extinct. On May 6th 2015, in Nevada, a huge, shiny Daimler truck bearing the number plate AU 010 became the first licensed self-driving truck to hit the American highways as part of a massive testing programme before self-driving trucks are rolled out nationwide. The technology is not very complicated: radars, cameras and some straightforward software. It is a question of when, not if, American highways will be crisscrossed by thousands of similar self-driving trucks.

And what then for the millions of truck drivers, their families and their communities? An economic earthquake, that's what, which could leave millions of people out of work. It is not as if technology hasn't devastated workers before: a century ago, around a third of workers in America had jobs in agriculture; today it is between 1% and 2%.

But the difference is that as machines ploughed, threshed and harvested the fields instead of the human hand, new jobs opened up in cities and factories. As technology destroyed jobs in one community, it invariably created more in others. So the technological revolutions of the past caused a mass migration from the countryside to urban areas.

The coming technological earthquake risks doing something altogether more radical: eliminating the need for humans to do a vast array of jobs altogether. As one commentator has declared, "software is eating the world".

If you think this sounds alarmist, consider this: the Nomura Research Institute and academics from Oxford University estimate that almost half of all jobs in Japan could be done by robots in twenty years time. And the astonishing speed with which Artificial Intelligence is advancing is taking even the most pointy headed scientists by surprise: in March 2016, in Seoul, Google's AI computer beat Lee Sedol, the world's number one Go player, four games to one. Go is an ancient board game which originated in China 2,500 years ago in which the number of board positions is estimated to be greater than the number of atoms in the universe. Google's team from it's Deep Mind division did not expect AI to adapt and win as ruthlessly as it did. David Ormerod, an American commentator, said that watching AI outmanoeuvre Lee Sedol made him feel "physically unwell". He knew he was watching a seminal moment in the victory of machines over humans.

Machines that know how to adapt, innovate, and improve what they do - "machine learning" - highlight something qualitatively new about the impending technological revolution: machines will not only replace humans in performing straightforward tasks like driving a truck, they could hollow out professional jobs too like book keeping, accountancy and even the law. Blue collar factory workers were the first to suffer obsolescence brought about by machines. But soon white collar professionals will also be elbowed aside by the unforgiving effects of machines that can learn for themselves.

Much of the rage which propelled Donald Trump to the inauguration stage on Capitol Hill was fuelled by angry blue collar workers threatened by technological change. His answer is the deeply misguided reflex of populists down the ages: build walls, yell "my country first" and impose protectionist barriers against products from abroad. But he had nothing to say about the bigger, unstoppable technological change just round the corner. Nor, I safely predict, will Theresa May's new Brexit industrial strategy have much to say either.

Artificial Intelligence is not only rendering people's jobs obsolete - it exposes the hopeless parochialism of a political class obsessed with fighting yesterday's battles, whether it's car imports from Mexico or bureaucrats in Brussels.

No wonder the leaders of Silicon Valley who gathered in Davos last week were reported to be fretting. They realise, rightly, that there's a risk that they will be vilified as the bankers were after the financial crisis. Their ingenious inventions not only displace jobs, they will also generate vast profits for the tech companies. Widespread unemployment combined with new concentrations of wealth is a guarantee of more political and social unrest. So the Silicon Valley crowd, to their credit, are trying to find a way of squaring the circle: how can people lead fulfilled lives if there are fewer and fewer jobs to go round?

Their favoured solution is to give everyone a "universal basic income" - whether they have a job or not. The idea, or a variant of it, is being piloted in Finland and the Netherlands. It has a seductive simplicity to it: if machines will render many of us idle, we might as well live comfortably from the profits they produce. But I also have an old fashioned belief in the importance of work to people's sense of self esteem and happiness. A society which eradicates poverty at the cost of mass worklessness, is not without its problems.

Technological change cannot be stopped. The benefits will be enormous, from better medical diagnoses to fewer traffic jams. How we ensure Artificial Intelligence will enhance, not hollow out, society is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Neither Trump's protectionism nor Theresa May's hard Brexit provide any answers.

This is an edited version of an article which appeared in the Evening Standard on 23rd January, reproduced by kind permission of the author, Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP, the Liberal Democrats' Brexit spokesman