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Artificial intelligence might not threaten the human race, but it could be coming for your job

American Futurist and author Martin Ford appears at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2016. (© B540/ Guillem Lopez/UPPA via ZUMA Press)
Published Sep. 20, 2018

You likely have heard how artificial intelligence is changing the world, from smart phones that keep getting smarter to all the experimenting with driverless vehicles.

The rapidly improving technology has also begun replacing workers, especially anyone who performs routine tasks. By some accounts, artificial intelligence could impact half the jobs in the country over the next 25 years.

Don't think of it as a new tool like the cotton gin or the personal computer, so much as a massively disruptive transformation. It's being called the next industrial revolution.

Futurist Martin Ford, author of the Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future and the soon-to-be released Architects of Intelligence: The truth about AI from the people building it, equates artificial intelligence to the impact from the invention and spread of electricity, but with more downside.

In popular culture, artificial intelligence is often depicted as a threat to human existence. Ford acknowledges that we shouldn't ignore that longer-term prospect, but he's more concerned with how artificial intelligence will upend the economy.

"AI has the potential to help us fight global poverty, cure diseases and tackle climate change," he told me before giving the keynote speech at the Manufacturers Association of Florida conference in St. Petersburg on Thursday. "But it will also create a lot more inequality."

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New technologies have prompted many "the sky is falling" proclamations over the centuries. More than 400 years ago, Queen Elizabeth I denied a patent for a knitting machine, fearing it would put hand knitters out of work. The advent of the car was met with near hysteria in some quarters.

On the whole, however, the advances created new jobs, often safer ones that eventually paid better, helping make the United States the richest nation in the world.

Ford has quipped that earlier technological advancements decimated a particular class of workers:

Horses.

Unlike our equine friends, our intelligence and ability to learn and adapt quickly allowed us to stay ahead of the technological curve. Machines were more efficient at rote tasks like affixing caps onto bottles or repeatedly installing the same car part, but they couldn't outthink us. They needed humans to conceive of what to put in the bottles and to invent the airbags and advanced braking systems in all those cars.

The difference now: The machines are starting to think, make decisions and adapt accordingly. They are learning — rapidly. That means they can encroach on what makes us uniquely human and, at least so far, indispensable to the economy.

In other words, we are starting to look a little more like horses.

"We could very well end up in a future with significant unemployment, or at a minimum, we could face lots of underemployment, or stagnant wages or maybe even declining wages," Ford said during last year's TED2017 "The Future You" conference. "All of that, of course, is going to put a terrific amount of stress on the fabric of society."

That from a man who describes himself as an optimist.

Ford emphasized Thursday that artificial intelligence and machine learning will invade every part of the economy in coming years, vaporizing blue- and white-collar jobs.

He said it's already affecting some of the more routine parts of finance and accounting. Wall Street relies on software capable of analyzing huge amounts of data to make trades in milliseconds. In the near future, artificial intelligence-assisted software will kick out legal contracts.

"I think we will be astonished by what AI is able to do," he said. "And we won't be prepared for some of it."

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Which industries are less likely to succumb to this burgeoning technology?

Jobs that require creativity, such as certain aspects of engineering, design, marketing and advertising. Anything that includes thinking up new ideas, such as new businesses, ingenious legal arguments or cutting-edge environmental policy.

Ford also listed nurses, electricians and plumbers, jobs that involve mobility and dexterity in unpredictable environments. Robots don't perform well in those conditions, not yet at least.

"My best advice is avoid anything routine, repetitive and predictable," he said. "And be willing to adapt."

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

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