The Artificial Intelligence Revolution is Now

Humankind has engaged technology to do more with less labor for as long as we have lived. In fact, somewhere between 2.5 and 3.4 million years ago, the common ancestors of humans and primates began to make and use crude tools. It took at least another million years before our early ancestors first learned to control fire; widespread use of fire for cooking is relatively recent, somewhere between 50 to 100,000 years ago.

It was about 12,000 years ago that hunter-gathers began to use cultivated agriculture for food. Somewhere around 30,000 years later, in the 9th century, gunpowder and early machinery marked a new technological era. A thousand years later, in the late 18th and early 19th century, the industrial revolution vastly accelerated our use of technology for production of goods. Mechanical calculators became commercially viable in the mid-1800’s, early analog computers came about 100 years later.

I remember first using a time-share computer terminal in my high school in 1968. Personal computers became commercially viable in the early-mid 1980’s, with the World Wide Web coming into its glory in the following decades. The new millennium, beginning only 17 years ago, was marked by widespread adoption of the smart phone, which seemed like a tremendous upgrade from the old PDAs. We bragged that our phones now had more computing capacity than the computers that guided moonshots. Computer networks and new and cheaper storage and processing exploded computer capacities. Now, we are now at the cusp of a new revolution based on quantum computing.

Throughout this several million year history, each technological revolution was met with both excitement and dread. Each time, the social, economic, and environmental impacts were profound. Disruptions were real. Family life changed. Work changed. Community changed. Political structures changed. Wars grew in scope and devastation. People migrated. There were winners and losers. And yet, somehow, the species adapted. It took time to adjust, but we survived and thrived.

Today’s artificial intelligence revolution isn’t leaving us much adjustment time. In 1984, Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard Business School Professor, wrote In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power. She described how the new machines may be used to empower—she called that “informate”—or to control, demean, and impoverish. Her book echoed the challenges faced in all our prior technological revolutions and foreshadowed the artificial intelligence debate today: Will technology create opportunities that we cannot even imagine and free us to pursue more lofty ambitions or take away our jobs and livelihood, our privacy, and our very dignity?

We have already experienced significant manufacturing job losses due to automation. A Ball State University study attributes 85 percent of U.S. manufacturing job losses to robotics and other productivity improvements, and only 13 percent due to trade.

The impacts are now moving to technical, analytical, and even managerial roles. According to a study done at Oxford University, over the next 10 to 20 years, 47 percent of all U.S. jobs are vulnerable to automation. Consider this observation by software developer Martin Ford, who was quoted in a December New Yorker review of his recent book: “A computer doesn’t need to replicate the entire spectrum of your intellectual capability in order to displace you from your job; it only needs to do the specific things you are paid to do.”

James Manyika, a senior partner at McKinsey and Company, agrees that almost half of the activities we pay people about $16 trillion in wages to do in the global economy have the potential to be automated using currently demonstrated technology. He believes that the most automatable activities involve data collection and manipulation as well as physical work in predictable environments including manufacturing, food services, transportation, warehousing, and retail. These sectors make up 51 percent of U.S. employment activities and $2.7 trillion in U.S. wages. And he adds that about 25 percent of what CEOs do, such as analyzing reports and data, could be replaced.

Manyika believes that in the short to medium term, more jobs will be changed than those fully automated away. And several other experts observe that even the eliminated jobs may be balanced by those created in enterprises yet to be determined. Consider, for example, that Google didn’t exist 20 years ago, and now its parent company Alphabet has a market cap of over $575 billion.

Elizabeth Kolbert comments in her New Yorker book review: “Picture the entire industrial revolution compressed into the life span of a beagle.” Is this a good thing? More specifically, to paraphrase Zuboff, will the AI revolution “infomate” or denigrate? That question will be the topic of the next blog in this series.

—Barton Alexander, Principal, Alexander & Associates LLC

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