Fears about human workers losing their jobs to machines have been fueled by a 72 percent increase in the number of industrial robots in the U.S. over the past decade, although with investment in artificial intelligence (AI) soaring, things could be about to get a lot worse. This is according to a new 300-page report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAML), which details the potential impact of the impending robot revolution on the job market.
The report claims that advances in robotics and AI are leading to a phenomenon known as “creative disruption,” whereby benefits in the shape of increased productivity and reduced costs are offset against disruptions to labor markets, with huge numbers of workers set to lose out. For instance, a San Francisco-based start-up has created a fully-automated burger-flipping machine, which is being tipped to replace workers in fast food restaurants. Elsewhere, plans have been announced to introduce “fully intelligent robot” police officers in the United Arab Emirates before the end of the decade, with the intention of providing “better services without hiring more people.”
While this may sound more like science fiction than reality, the report insists that such innovations are not beyond the realms of possibility, largely thanks to a predicted three-fold increase in the size of the robotics market over the next five years. As a result, it is claimed that “the combination of AI, machine learning, deep learning, and natural user interfaces (such as voice recognition) are making it possible to automate many knowledge worker tasks that were long regarded as impossible or impractical for machines to perform.”
According to Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, this could soon lead to what he calls the “Singularity,” whereby sentient devices overtake humans as the most intelligent beings on the planet.
On a slightly less apocalyptic but equally alarming note, the BAML report suggests that the rise of automated workforces could result in social and economic inequality, as wealth becomes concentrated among business owners. This could generate “winner-takes-all and monopolistic outcomes,” with the proprietors of technological patents accumulating huge amounts of wealth while unskilled workers struggle.
However, BAML also recognizes that similar fears have been raised several times in the past, with the catastrophic consequences of increased mechanization ultimately failing to materialize. For instance, while the introduction of technology to agricultural processes may have replaced man hours on farms, it also led to the creation of entirely new job markets and has not therefore led to mass unemployment.
Many will be hoping for a similar effect as new robotic technologies continue to revolutionize the global workspace, leading to what BAML is calling a “paradigm shift which will change the way we live and work.”