Robots: Our New Overlords, Or Just the Latest Bit of Silicon Valley Hype?

Will artificial intelligence take away all our jobs in the fairly near future? I think so, but I acknowledge that the case either way is speculative since there’s no way to know for sure how fast we’re going to make progress on AI. All any of us can do is marshal the evidence about how fast AI is progressing and then make our best case one way or the other about the likely pace of future progress.

That said, there are good argument and bad ones against AI-driven robots taking away all our jobs. Here are the two absolute worst:

  • If automation were taking away jobs, we’d see it in high productivity growth figures. But productivity growth is low, not high.
  • Automation creates jobs, it doesn’t eliminate them. Just take a look at the Industrial Revolution.

I say these are the worst because they’re almost literally hot air:

  • It’s true that productivity growth is low, and and it’s also true that this means AI isn’t taking away jobs right now. That’s because AI doesn’t exist yet. My best read of the evidence is that we’ll see the first glimmers of true AI in about ten years, with full AI coming 20 or 30 years later. That’s a guess, but nobody—not one single person—thinks we’re anywhere close to AI today. So of course it’s not reflected in the current productivity statistics.
  • The AI Revolution will be nothing like the Industrial Revolution except for the fact that both have “Revolution” in their names. AI, by definition, implies human-level intelligence. Thus, by definition, if the AI Revolution creates new jobs, those new jobs will also be done by AI-equipped robots.¹ There’s really no way around this if you accept that AI is coming anytime soon in the first place.

I truly don’t understand why smart people keep making these arguments.² They’re embarrassing. And yet here is Wired, which surely knows better, publishing an article by a very good writer, who ought to know better, telling us not to worry about this whole robot thing. And it’s based almost entirely on exactly these two arguments. Why?

¹It’s possible, of course, that a few jobs will still be left for humans: legislators, CEOs, a few artists, who knows? But this is just nitpicking. If 1 percent of the jobs stay around—or even 10 percent or 20 percent—we still have mass unemployment on our hands.

²So what are the good arguments that mass unemployment is a long way away? You can argue that Moore’s Law is breaking down and it’s going to be a very long time before we have the computing power for true AI. You can argue that robots will be smart but never very sociable, so humans will all move into jobs that require social skills. You can argue that our knowledge of the human brain is rudimentary and we’re still underestimating what it will take to emulate it. I think all of these arguments have weaknesses that undermine them, but they aren’t ridiculous.