Editor’s Note: Arun Vishwanath studies the people problem of cybersecurity. He is a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Amazon Go, the online retailer’s first completely automated store, debuted in Seattle last week. Using a bevy of smart cameras, deep machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms, the store makes it possible for shoppers to simply pick up the products they like and go, with their accounts being automatically charged for the products – completely eliminating the need for cashiers and checkout lines. Though staff members still stock the shelves, they will likely soon be replaced by robots.
This is revolutionary and will likely be how all stores will operate in the near future. Stores won’t have to invest in employees – salaries, training, overtime, health care. Customers will like it, too. No more standing in boring check-out lines, interacting with indifferent staff.
What we are witnessing is surely the future of the retail industry, but there is also a downside that needs our attention. Cashiers and retail workers are two of the most common occupations in the US, employing roughly 8 million people, many of who tend to be younger, white women, making modest yearly incomes in the $20,000-$25,000 range.
Most of these jobs require little formal education for entry, and so the sector supports many individuals with relatively low skills and education who are likely to find it particularly hard to quickly retool and fit a different employment sector. Most of them will likely find themselves jobless.
Of course, this isn’t the only sector that AI will decimate. Driverless trucks are already being tested on major highways. They, too, have many advantages over today’s long haulers: they can run 24/7 and never get fatigued; no need for mandatory breaks; no more wasted fuel idling overnight.
Truck drivers account for a third of the cost of this $700 billion industry, and there are over 1 million mostly middle-aged, white male truckers in the US. Their jobs will be rendered obsolete. And these numbers will likely be even higher once driverless cars replace all taxi and local delivery drivers.
Such fears of computing-led obsolescence aren’t new. In 1964, less than a few years after IBM had launched the first solid-state mainframe computer, “The Twilight Zone” ran a skit titled “The Brain Center at Whipple’s” – where Mr. Whipple, the owner of a vast manufacturing corporation replaced all his factory workers with a room-sized computing machine.
Mr. Whipple’s economic justification for his “X109B14 modified transistorized totally automated machine” could just as well be applied to AI: “It costs 2 cents an hour to run … it lasts indefinitely … it gets no wrinkles, no arthritis, no blocked arteries … two of them replace 114 men who take no coffee breaks, no sick leaves, no vacations with pay.” In the show, Whipple’s machine quickly replaced everyone from the plant’s workers to its foremen to all the secretaries.
The story was prescient and many of its fictionalized fears in time came true: Most of the large manufacturing plants were indeed shut down; secretaries and typists mostly became obsolete; and the jobs that created the American middle-class were all eventually outsourced. Much of this computer-driven automation replaced low-skilled easily routinizable functions.
But AI is different. It utilizes deep-learning algorithms and acquires skills, so it can routinize many complex functions.
Take journalism – a task that has always been performed by humans. After its purchase of The Washington Post last year, Amazon tested Heliograf, a new AI based writing program that automates report-writing using predefined narrative templates and phrases. From the Olympics to the elections, the software has already auto-published close to 1,000 articles.
And given its ability to churn through virtually any amount of data and spit out endless reports instantaneously, AI newsbots are way better than humans. It’s no surprise then that USA Today, Reuters, BuzzFeed and growing numbers of financial organizations are already employing AI for tasks ranging from reporting to data authentication.
In the near future, AI will replace many other such so-called highly skilled professions, from chefs to pilots and surgeons. Going back to school, learning new skills and retooling might not be an option because it would be impossible to learn as quickly, provide the kind the nuance from distilling terabytes of information or outpace AI. And besides, by the human-time it takes to acquire a new skill, AI might have learned to replace it.
If these trends materialize – and some might not – we are looking at a seismic shift in the American economy. If the last election was a push back against globalization, imagine what a rage against AI will look like.
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The solution, of course, is not to stop the march of progress but to prepare for it with forward thinking investments in education, human capital and public policy. While Washington is busy cleaning up yesterday’s self-inflicted mess, this is tomorrow’s crisis that requires attention today.
In the end of the Mr. Whipple skit, he, too, was rendered obsolete – by a robot. Rod Serling’s ominous closing message: “Man becomes clever instead of becoming wise; he becomes inventive and not thoughtful; and sometimes, as in the case of Mr. Whipple, he can create himself right out of existence.” One hopes that this isn’t what AI does to us.