back to article White House report cautiously optimistic about job-killing AI

In a followup to its smash hit, Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence, the White House on Tuesday released Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy, a report that attempts to outline the economic consequences of expected advances in automation and machine learning without actually risking a prediction …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Welcome to the future!

    Where everything is different, but nothing is new. Even in the future we'll need ditch diggers. It stands to reason; there will always be people who are for progress and technology and all the good, and sometimes bad, things they bring, and the people who are against anything new and all the bad, and sometimes good, that it brings. I have this funny history of computers series from about 1992, and in it there were people from circa 1950 concerned about computers "takin' our jobs!" and you know what, that never happened, and none of the tube-driven computers ran any of those old idiots out of their crap construction or farm jobs. Even today robots are very expensive, take an IT department to manage, and only replace people for highly precise, and or dangerous, work. I'm "counting the days" until I can get a robot to do my job, and I'll die before one is available that can. The real truth about that old interview about the scary new computers is that it was all hype by the makers of the TV show it was aired on to; 1) get people excited about anything, so 2) they can sell advert time to it, even though it was complete garbage. Same thing with AI. It's barely able to play an Atari 2600 game. And it's not going to replace anyone doing anything remotely intelligent. Can it process tons of data in new weird ways? Yes! Is it going to replace me as a Linux Admin? Maybe, if it's highly tailored to do some specific tasks I do, but most likely it won't be able to because if it could it would be way more expensive than me, and it would take expert levels of knowledge being poured into it to remain up to date. I don't see it happening to anything other than simple tasks with dangerous edges, like driving, or welding, or other stuff robots already do now, or where a robot would be a welcome change to some person expecting a cash tip. So, hurry up AI! I would like to just sit back and let you do your thing, when you can actually do something. Anything.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Welcome to the future!

      > "...there were people from circa 1950 concerned about computers "takin' our jobs!" and you know what, that never happened..."

      Sure it did. Think stenography pool. But, while jobs were eliminated by computers, more were created. Not sure what the final score is on that, but I'd say that nearly all the old lost jobs were soul-killingly dull and better off gone, just like the assembly line jobs replaced by robots.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Welcome to the future!

        But, while jobs were eliminated by computers, more were created. Not sure what the final score is on that, but I'd say that nearly all the old lost jobs were soul-killingly dull and better off gone, just like the assembly line jobs replaced by robots.

        Yep, many of those blue collar semi-skilled jobs have indeed gone. More to China than to robots. Now the idiots of the US government want robots to eliminate the jobs that they and Wall Street have been unable to offshore. And people at the top of the tech industry are cheering this on. Simply supporting AI development and the elimination of "bread-winner" jobs won't help the US economy at all, it will however make wealth inequality much, much worse, as the techno-barons and financial sector get richer, whilst the real economy shrinks. The outcome will be more urban poverty, crime, race riots and social instability. Think of poor, fractured cities of today - and then abolish half the jobs that still exist there. Are a million truck drivers doing to successfully retrain as better paid video game programmers? I think not.

        As for the net gain/loss, I think you'll find that the amount of jobs isn't much different, but far more of them are low wage, part time and intermittent compared to the 1950s and 1960s. All the data is in the BLS jobs reports, but you'll need careful analysis by somebody like David Stockman to illustrate how bad this is. People voted Trump because they are seeing this hollowing out of the US economy, and decent jobs being replaced by crap like Uber gigs, zero hours retailing contracts, theme park attendant or burger flipping jobs. Manufacturing and truck driving might be boring, mundane, unrewarding to you, for many people they are reasonably paid, dependable and satisfying jobs.

        This may seem a big bit Luddite. But absent a clear, convincing, fully funded plan to create more good quality jobs for people with limited intellectual skills, then more automation is a recipe for disaster.

        1. Eddy Ito Silver badge

          Re: Welcome to the future!

          China isn't immune to robot replacements. If the "US" job goes to China and is ultimately done by a robot...

          Well, I suppose it's comforting in a misery loves company sort of way. It's now possible for Trump to make good on his promises to bring manufacturing back to the U.S. without actually bringing jobs. Soon that little "made in [$place]" sticker will be meaningless to everyone but the taxman so perhaps they'll turn it into a bit of advertising for the brand of robot which squirts it out.

          It's also a bit more complicated. There was a smaller population in the '50s and '60s and the labor pool didn't include many women. I grant that was partly because a family could be supported by a single income then but not so much now. That plan to create quality jobs is a lot more complicated than it seems.

        2. Robert Helpmann?? Silver badge
          Childcatcher

          Re: Welcome to the future!

          People voted Trump because they are seeing this hollowing out of the US economy, and decent jobs being replaced by crap like Uber gigs, zero hours retailing contracts, theme park attendant or burger flipping jobs.

          The irony in this is that allowing market forces to work things out and having less government regulation of the workplace is likely to accelerate these trends.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Welcome to the future!

        > "...there were people from circa 1950 concerned about computers "takin' our jobs!" and you know what, that never happened..."

        Go to a modern printers and try to find typesetters, plate makers, ink mixers,.... and that's just one industry. 50 years ago to make a news paper (excluding journalists) would involved 20 or 30 people, now it's just a couple. There are no replacement jobs to move to, it was a complete retrain.

    2. Filippo

      Re: Welcome to the future!

      What? That *did* happen. I do industrial automation; my last job was at a factory that can be operated at full efficiency by 2 people, but even just 1 can do in a pinch. Re farm jobs, I have software that makes food for pigs out of raw materials and feeds them according to nutrition requirements and schedule, can be operated by 1 person leaving time to spare. At another place, where I just automated some data stuff, integrating some systems that used to only talk via paper, eyeballs and keyboards, the owner outright told me that he was cutting the size of that office from 5 to 3. Just to be clear, these are not outliers; most companies in those fields are like this. There's no way in hell any of that could have happened in the 1950s.

      Sure, there are a lot of jobs that computers didn't take, and AI hasn't really done anything yet, but stating that "none" of the computers ran away "any" of those low-skilled workers since the 50s is a statement that sounds positively surreal to me.

    3. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

      Re: Welcome to the future!

      Well, the future isn't what it used to be. BTW, still waiting for that hoverboard.

  2. Mark 85 Silver badge

    That seems to be a balanced article with a heavy dose of reality tossed in as comment.

    I am seeing some pushback in retail by customers. They don't seem to like "self-service" check-out and the stores are going back to human checkout. But that seems to be the only place at this point. Maybe the autopilot cabs will work, maybe they won't but that's still a long way off. Over the road truckers... same deal.

    It probably won't be so much a revolution as a creeping line in the sand.

    1. Filippo

      Self-service checkouts are slower than human checkout. I really don't see how it could be any other way. At a self-service checkout you're doing exactly the same operations that the human employee would do, except that the human employee is a pro and will always do those things with near-maximal efficiency, while a customer will always waste time searching for barcodes and reading what's on the screen.

      The only way self-service checkouts, as they are designed now, can be better for the customer is if you put so many of them that queuing times are drastically reduced.

      Now, if they ever figure out how to let people pay without taking objects out of the cart and scanning them individually, that would change things.

      1. VinceH Silver badge

        "Now, if they ever figure out how to let people pay without taking objects out of the cart and scanning them individually, that would change things."

        I think I've seen TV adverts for one or two of the big stores who are introducing something like that. I don't watch adverts at home (I time shift so I can fast forward through them) so I'll have seen these while elsewhere, and didn't pay much attention ('cos they're adverts) but I think what happens is you collect some handheld scanner thing on the way in, and scan each item as you put it in your basket.

        I presume you then pay at some machine on the way out by transferring your shop from the gizmo, and then putting in your debit/credit card. And I also presume there are mechanisms in place to deal with any problems and pitfalls with such a system. I don't remember the advert mentioning such things.

        1. Bob Wheeler

          @VinceH

          In the UK, Waitrose supermarket has hand held scanners. You pick an item off the shelf, scan the bar-code, put the stuff in your bag. At the end of your shop, at the check out point, that pull the information from the scaner, and you pay.

          Every now and then that do a spot check that everything in your bags have been scanned.

          My wife loves it, not having to fill her trolley, unload it at the checkout, reload it again once it's been scanned.

        2. Meerkatjie

          I worked for a store that was trialling it about 10 years ago - everything would have a rfid and a narrow field scanner at the front of the store would guess at what you had bought and then update your store card with the total. You could literally grab something off the shelf and run out the door without interacting with anything. It never went anywhere because it was a little bit useless at being consistent enough (i.e. it gave too much away to the customers and sometimes the wrong customer) for them to use.

          1. Marketing Hack Silver badge

            This is what Amazon Go stores are shooting for. You walk in, grab your groceries which are then ID'd and tallied automatically when you leave, and everything is billed to your Amazon account

      2. Meerkatjie

        They replace fleshies - so they are beneficial for the company and minimally beneficial for anyone else

      3. Mike Moyle Silver badge

        My biggest issue with self-checlout is that, at various times, I've WORKED retail gigs; if they want me to ring up and bag my own groceries for them then I flinking well expect an employee discount!

      4. fishman

        "Self-service checkouts are slower than human checkout. I really don't see how it could be any other way. "

        Where I shop, there are usually 3 people in line at the cashier, versus an open self checkout lane. I can scan almost as fast as a cashier (and faster than a few), and I can bag faster than most. I'm done and heading for the car while I would have still been in line for the cashier.

    2. ma1010 Silver badge
      Terminator

      I won't use them.

      I never use self-service check outs. I have a job, and I want other people to have jobs, so I always go to a human clerk, even if the line is longer. Other people need to make a living, too.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I won't use them.

        Self-checkout won't replace cashiers.

        Amazon will. And other online retailers, if there are any.

  3. ocratato

    Telepresence Robots

    One thing that is often mentioned is that manual labour tasks are unlikely to be replaced. I don't think that is going to be the case.

    We now have quite good VR headsets and haptic feedback robotic hands as well as robots that can move around without falling overs. I expect that we will soon see tele-presence robots, initially for dangerous tasks, such as military and law enforcement, then for difficult manual tasks such as ditch digging, farm work or hospital porters, and eventually for household duties. (I'm not sure we will ever get to the situation portrayed in the film Surrogates, but it does give a hint of a possible future.)

    The point is that these robots can be operated almost as well from Dhaka as they can from Sydney, and with significantly lower operator costs. Who thinks that businesses won't trade a person on local wage rates for a robot at $2 per hour?

  4. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

    "The situation might be likened to that of the Titanic, which had lifeboats – just not enough for everyone."

    As even the article strays a bit off topic... interesting factoid: the Titanic actually had more lifeboats than it was required to have per the regulations at that time. Which goes to show that policy and regulations should be updated from time to time in order to keep up with technology.

    BTW: China is building a theme park that will have a full-scale replica of the Titanic. Which means there will be a guy whose job it is to arrange the deckchairs.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Rise of the Very Big Killing Machines

    I drive HGVs for a living, and full automation is coming. Read the trade press for accounts of sitting in a truck at 85kph 5 metrees from the one in front. Right now, my driver assistance kit can fully stop my truck without any input from me. Active cruise control maintains speed and separation, AEBS can slam the brakes on quicker tham I can react, lane departure warning tells me when I'm weaving.

    BUT...the pushback from the public is going to be massive. The first driverless vehicle to kill someone (and it will, the law of averages being what it is) will set back the process back 3-5 years. Then there's security. It's a trivial matter to bring a vehicle to a halt, use a cell jammer to stop it reporting, and then make off with part of the load.

  6. jrchips

    "drivers and cashiers"

    Are these the two best examples the report could come up with? Because both are arguable.

    Self-checkout has been around for a long time but is still only an adjunct to, rather than a replacement for, retail cashiers. There is nothing happening to suggest that scenario will change anytime soon.

    Driverless vehicles are, in reality, still a dream. And, if recent Uber and Tesla missteps are any kind of indicator, the regulations will likely get a whole lot tougher. In all probability they will severely limit public experimentation and raise the bar on 'proof of performance'. Then the rate of adoption will stretch way out and the financial picture will look much less attractive.

    So, no, the big AI disruption is far from certain despite all the PR drum beating.

    1. breakfast

      I would be amazed if there are more than a handful of professional truck drivers on the roads twenty years from now, assuming we're not living in some post-apocalyptic dystopia by then.

      Given that driving a truck is one of the few relatively well-paid jobs available without a degree course, this is going to have a massive effect on the lives of a huge number of people. In the USA in 2014 "truck, tractor or delivery driver" was the most common job in 30 states. That is a massive demographic change in the works.

      What happens when so much work is automated that hardly anyone can afford any of the products of automation? How do the 1% continue to get richer once they have - effectively - all the money?

      To assume that things can go on as they have is dangerous. We need to be looking at what the end of the possibility for universal employment means and how to make the best of it and governments need to be ahead of the curve here, this needs an architectural solution, not handfuls of reactive and insufficient policies thrown at it in retrospect.

      1. ma1010 Silver badge
        Childcatcher

        How to get richer

        How do the 1% continue to get richer once they have - effectively - all the money?

        Looking at history, specifically the Middle Ages when that was kind of how things were, I'd expect the 1% to start robbing each other, or invade another country. I suppose that could provide entertainment for the 90% out of work (the other 9% being servants of the rich). Of course, the 1% will usually find a way to get the 99% involved in their wars.

        There might be a way to make such an economy work. Perhaps something like in James Hogan's Voyage to Yesteryear could be possible someday, although I don't really see how to get there from here.

        1. Charles 9 Silver badge

          Re: How to get richer

          "Looking at history, specifically the Middle Ages when that was kind of how things were, I'd expect the 1% to start robbing each other, or invade another country. I suppose that could provide entertainment for the 90% out of work (the other 9% being servants of the rich). Of course, the 1% will usually find a way to get the 99% involved in their wars."

          That's what's going to happen. The 1% will just close themselves off and hash it out amongst themselves, and if the 99% make too much noise, they'll just start dropping the WMDs piloted by robots.

  7. DougS Silver badge

    Even if job gains are balanced by job losses

    Society is still screwed, because the people losing their jobs will be positions with low skill or little room for skill transference, like fast food workers and truck drivers. If a robot revolution creates as many jobs as it kills, it probably won't be creating jobs that fry cooks and truckers will be able to do, no matter how much money is allocated for "retraining".

    1. myhandler

      Re: Even if job gains are balanced by job losses

      Doug S is absolutely correct.

      Remember not everyone has a high IQ - as you all know half the population is below 100 points.

      Jobs need to be around for the less bright and less well educated - sure a load of those will be in the rich ruler category (naming no names) but the proletariat needs money to buy stuff to keep the gravy train running - where is the mass employment going to be in 20-50 years time?

    2. tiggity Silver badge

      Re: Even if job gains are balanced by job losses

      Please stop calling truck driving low skill.

      Manouvering a HGV with trailer in a tight space is not low skill, especially reversing.

      1. DougS Silver badge

        Re: Even if job gains are balanced by job losses

        I know that, which is why I said "and jobs with low skill transference". The skills of a good truck driver are indeed pretty impressive, but they don't transfer well to other jobs.

  8. Bob Wheeler

    Anothe aspect

    One of the other aspect of human labor being replaced by machines is the tax take that the government will have.

    With each job replaced, the government will lose the TAX, NI etc., taken from that employment. the machine is not paid, so can't be taxed in the same way.

    So while overall productivity may increase, and unless those displaced workers get other employment, there is less tax being paid and more unemployment benefits being paid out.

    If, or maybe that should be when, the shift to automation becomes a significant factor, governments will need to re-asses how they balance the books.

    1. gskr

      Re: Anothe aspect

      @Bob - I think that's exactly what future governments are going to have to tackle.

      For "Fun" I've done a bit of simple arithmetic. NB there's a lot of variables left out!

      Suppose we have a company "Acme Products" (for simplicity a fully domestic company that unlike amazon etc pays proper corporation tax and performs in house manufacturing, distribution and retail sales of its widgets). Lets say that it currently employs 10,000 people: 1000 back-office employees (ave £25k salary), 1000 involved in the manufacturing arm (ave £25k salary), 100 in distribution (ave £25k salary), and the rest (7900) in retail (ave £15k salary). Total wage bill = 171M (lets ignore heating, NI, training, uniforms etc for now)

      Now lets say the company brings in £500M in widget sales each year (excl VAT), and has additional costs of £229M in terms of raw materials, rent for retail units, electricity for manufacturing etc - so makes £100M a year profit.

      The company pays 20% of this profit as corporation tax (= £20M) and its employees pay ~30% of their wages as tax = £50M, so a total of £70M goes to the government as tax.

      Now lets suppose the in the future it is able to automate the majority of its manufacturing, distribution and retail operations. So distribution goes to 10 (drone truck watchers), Retail to 790 (store robot supervisors) and manufacturing to 100 (factory robot supervisors). Lets say they incur no addition costs for this. So its just the wage bill that changes, to just £34.6M.

      So now the company makes £236.4M profit per year = £47.28M corporation tax & the wages make just £10.38M tax for the government. ie, £57.66M total, £12.34M less than the old regime.

      But its worse than that of course, because those 8100 unemployed people (who cant be retained as robot supervisors, or aren't needed anyway) now need lets say £10k each unemployment benefits = 81 M. Clearly the government cant afford this, as its now £12.34M worse off!

      So in the simplest terms we'd need to increase the corporation tax to cover that £93.34M shortfall = an approx 40% increase in corporation tax to a total of 60%

      Is that a solution... not really - just a starting point. I mean are people still going to be able to afford to buy widgets when so many people are now just barely getting by. The government needs new ways to prevent all the wealth ending up in a few pockets, or the entire economy is going to eventually stagnate and die.

  9. Nocroman

    Rude and inconsiderate

    I have seen the new machines that replace human workers at a McDonalds in a casino already. I consider this to be rude and tells me the company doesn't care about me the customer, but only about my money. I went elsewhere to eat. Not only was this rude but they didn't even have lower prices for the money they say they saved by using machines instead of humans.

    Companies that care not for their fellow man, intentionally refusing to pay a human being a living wage but instead would replace that human with a machine they say works 24/7 without complaint or sick days will soon find out that other human being are just as vicious as they are. Machines will cost a lot of money to repair when it makes a mistake a nd the person takes it out on the machine instead of having the mistake immediately taken care of by a human being. Also money is not the only thing a person can slip into the slot where the money goes. Humans will work through a power outage. machines will not. There are those of us out here that can and will hack their new fail safe machines and take their money or just shut them down. OR we can really make their machine sick, from giving it a mild cold to a deadly machine killing disease. It's called a virus. A very nasty little bug that makes both humans and machines sick and/or die. Wow, I figured this all out before my first cup of coffee and without a Harvard degree like some executives in companies like McDonalds like to thinks makes them better than us so called common folks that merely buy their food.

    My advice to the executives at these kind of companies and corporations is, pay your employee's a good living wage. You get less theft, happier employees that work harder and are loyal to your company so you have less turn over and do not have to waste time and money constantly training new employee's. It' High time the corporations and businesses in America stop the greed and join the human race again.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Rude and inconsiderate

      Why play that hamster wheel when they can just pay one time for something that can seriously cut labor costs (and controlling costs is a fiduciary duty)? Who cares about the 99%? The 1% will eventually be able to hash it out amongst themselves. The rest, let Darwin sort 'em out.

  10. Marketing Hack Silver badge
    Terminator

    Its not just cashiers and driver jobs that are in danger

    Vinod Khosla talking about how AI can replace 80% of IT jobs through automation

    https://futurism.com/80-of-it-jobs-can-be-replaced-by-automation-and-its-exciting/

    My favorite part:

    Khosla was quick to calm his audience, telling them not to worry because “we’re all in the other 20%, not the 80% that’s automated.”

  11. Michel

    Not just low skilled job at risk

    Whenever the questions of AI replacing jobs come around, people tend to focus on low skilled jobs, almost as if it makes it easier to digest. "It's just low skilled cashiers, they'll just have to upgrade...go to school and get some skills."

    People who believe they're skilled, and intelligent don't think they're at risk, but AI isn't about replacing low skilled labour. Billionaire tech investors aren't thinking "How can we make a menial robot today?" They are trying to make machines that can learn exponentially; become smarter, faster and better at any task it's trained to do, and eventually train to learn new tasks it was not even asked to learn.

    I think the people who should also worry about Artificial Intelligence having an impact are those in the "Intelligence" business. 20 years from now, highly advanced AI could also help replace people whom today believe they can't be replaced because they're "smart" and can "think". But in reality, how many law clerks, tax accountants, CRA's, data processsors, software programmers, interpreters, others could be replaced too? Heck, even judges or lawyers could probably be replaced. And we've already seen how well bots can put together fake blogs and news stories, it wouldn't be a stretch for an automated reporting system to replace news reporters and bloggers.

    I'm not trying to say "be afraid", I'm just merely trying to remind people to not simply believe this is an issue affecting "low skilled" jobs. Just like when outsourcing started to become a big thing, it was "well, those call center people can just upgrade and find better work..." before it became an issue for high paid IT departments and software developers.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "without actually risking a prediction"

    The optimist in me suspects the report's authors, not knowing who to believe, opted to acknowledge us naysayers. Only idiots would enact policies based on a wildly optimistic Plan A with no fallback.

    Automation is often counterproductive, as anyone in IT knows.

    The tinfoil hatter in me says they're hyping AI and self-driving cars to distract the plebs from the real job-killer, a phenomenon our friends at NakedCapitalism have dubbed "crapification": optimization for low cost without regard to fringe benefits like quality, reputation, morale, flexibility, alternate supply chains, a health domestic economy, etc. Automate what can be cheaply automated. Source from the cheapest country. Eliminate unnecessary labor (QA, engineering, cleaning). Cut all features used by less than 20% of customers (yo, Apple). Replace distinct products with cookie-cutter variations (more trendy colors!!!)

  13. Alistair Silver badge
    Windows

    Just wow.

    not too much ego in these pages.

    AI as they're discussing in real terms is not going after "cashiers and truckers", its going to be going after the jobs that actually require skills that have to be learned over time. AI advantage, only has to do it ONCE not 5 or 6 times. or 200.

    This will include diagnostics of complex systems. Yes, they have to teach the AI or it has to learn, but invariably a) it only has to do it once and b) they may well have the data corralled already.

    Furthermore, snowflakes have no place in automation. so they'll go the way of the dinosaur, and eventually your 'exceptional' IT skills go down in value. Rapidly.

    The long discussion here is - and we DO need to have it, check numbers on a) Farmers/farm workers between 1948 and 2011. b) manufacturing labour between 1948 and and 2011. Keep in mind that there has been a massive change in population in that period. - We as a species need to figure out what we will be doing in the next 45 to 50 years with the idea of 'employment' and the idea of 'work' and the idea of 'income/wealth'.

    Personally, I'm all for getting the elevators built so we can start populating the asteroids, and spreading out a bit. I'm sure we can figure out how to do the floating orbital caves.

  14. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

    remember whn Tractors were invented. goddam 4 wheel horses takin our jobs...

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