Morici: Robots and artificial intelligence will not be the end of work

Peter Morici

Robots filling orders for Amazon and driverless vehicles hardly spell the end of work, but the artificial intelligence driving the current wave of automation – if Americans do not embrace it effectively – could catapult China ahead of the United States once and for all.

Those of us who were around in the 1960s remember elevator operators and bowling alley pin-setters losing their jobs. Alarmists warn that artificial intelligence now is beginning to enable machines to replace not just unskilled workers but knowledge workers too – for example, insurance adjusters. They worry society will divide between those owning the intellectual property and indolent masses who will depend on government handouts.

More compelling is the example of mid-20th century office workers. The functions of executive secretaries, accounting clerks, ordinary typists and file clerks largely have been combined and their numbers reduced by desktop computers and productivity software.

We still have clerical workers – just fewer who support many more businesses and professionals. And automating their work has freed many more young people to go on to college – instead of secretarial school – to become social workers, software engineers and a host of other more knowledge-intensive occupations.

Machines and the knowledge embedded in them really do three things: replace hands and muscle in repetitive and backbreaking tasks; enhance our senses of hearing, sight and feel; and most recently through computers, process billions of bits of information to identify patterns, compare those to databases and run scenarios – if I do this, what options are eliminated and new ones created – to predict behavior or replicate some of the work of the human mind.

The latter is artificial intelligence. It permits marketers to build algorithms that quickly place ads for products we find attractive on our computer screens. Aided by cellphone apps and high-resolution cameras, it permits dermatologists and oncologists to more quickly diagnose skin cancers and with patients’ medical histories, prescribe the most effective treatments.

AI will not replace doctors, but it will permit them to treat more patients more effectively and at lower costs. And somehow, I do not think people are quite ready to leave life and death decisions to an iPhone app.

Similarly, I hardly believe most folks will be willing to put a 6 year-old into a driverless car or school bus on a snowy, dark January morning. More likely, one driver will control several delivery vehicles or taxis (for adults) from a dispatch center and send assistance quickly if a problem emerges.

Lower costs for transporting goods will enhance the growth prospects of other industries that rely on livery services – from those making meals delivered to your home and internet retailers that bring you difficult-to-find-locally fishing tackle. This will disrupt industries – restaurants will suffer losses to delivered meals and brick-and-mortar will continue to lose market share – but overall efficiency and the growth potential for the economy will improve.

America’s problem is that we are embracing these changes too slowly – witness the declining pace of productivity growth in the face of all these potentially efficiency-enhancing innovations and the shortage of skilled workers to bring manufacturing back to America.

Most high school students are ill-prepared either to enter demanding vocational or apprenticeship programs or enroll in college curriculum for engineering and the like.

The response of technology leaders like Tesla’s Elon Musk is to call for the government regulation of AI – essentially put a break on progress–or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is to just surrender–forsake the notion of every adult having a job and guarantee every American a government-funded annual income.

That will not give us the workforce we need to exploit the opportunities for growth automation and AI offer and put us at risk of being lapped by societies that better challenge their businesses and young people to step up.

China’s leadership correctly sees AI as the emerging the linchpin of global wealth. Beijing is investing $150 billion to dominate the field by 2030–taking a stake in indigenous companies developing next generation automobiles and that compete with the likes of Apple, Google and Facebook. And China hardly tells its young people the world owes them a living.

Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist. © 2017 The Washington Times

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