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Experts Divided Over Robotic Future & Impact on Jobs, But Agree on Need to Overhaul Education — Pew

First Posted: Aug 06, 2014 09:59 PM EDT
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Pew released an opt-in survey of technology and policy experts showing little consensus over what the next decade of artificial intelligence and robotics might offer. The need to overhaul the educational system to meet the needs of the next economy, however, was the one factor the experts agreed on.

As part of its 2014 Future of the Internet study, Pew Research canvassed experts and analysts in technology, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and other fields to get a picture of what impact to daily life to expect from robots by 2025. The results were far from a consensus, with experts divided almost equally on questions of what could be the norm in a little over a decade, and whether to look forward to that future. One thing was clear though: experts agree our education system is not ready for the future.

Divided Expectations: How Big Will AI and Robotics Be by 2025?

Out of the nearly 1,900 experts who responded to Pew's opt-in survey, experts were divided about a future by 2025 where robots and AI programs have permeated huge parts of our daily lives, including in the form of self-driving cars, automated customer service, home maintenance, and health care.

For example, Jeff Jarvis, a media and technology journalist, wrote to Pew, "By 2025, artificial intelligence will be built into the algorithmic architecture of countless functions of business and communication, increasing relevance, reducing noise, increasing efficiency, and reducing risk across everything from finding information to making transactions." Vint Cerf, VP and "Internet evangelist" for Google, told Pew " "Self-driving cars seem very likely by 2025.... The Internet of Things will be well under way by this time and interaction with and among a wide range of appliances is predictable." Even more fantastically, GigaOM Research's Stowe Boyd predicted, "Pizzas will not be delivered by teenagers hoping for a tip... Your X-rays will be reviewed by a battery of Watson-grade AIs, and humans will only be pulled in when the machines disagree," adding, "Robotic sex partners will be a commonplace, although the source of scorn and division, the way that critics today bemoan selfies as an indicator of all that's wrong with the world."

Other experts weren't so sure about how quickly robotics will become technologically sophisticated, or societally accepted enough, to become part of everyday life. "We're still a very long way from 'AI' as generally seen in the movies, i.e. humanoid robots," wrote programmer and anti-web censorship activist Seth Finkelstein. Bill Woodcock, executive director of non-profit deep Internet research organization Packet Clearing House, was more skeptical about the wide availability of robotic and AI technology, noting, "The degree of integration of AI into daily life will depend very much, as it does now, on wealth."

Divided Outlook: Should We Fear or Welcome AI and Robots?

The second part of Pew's opt-in survey of experts centered around whether AI and robotics will be an overall threat to human jobs or whether technological advances will open up more economic opportunities than the jobs they displace. Experts were even more evenly divided on this point, with 48 percent saying technological advances in these fields would end up taking more jobs than they create by 2025, and 52 percent saying they won't.

Some experts pointed to historical evidence saying that advances in AI and robotics will create new types of jobs, while taking over more rote tasks from human hands. Michael Kende, chief economist of the Internet Society, for example, wrote, "Every wave of automation and computerization has increased productivity [without] depressing employment," adding, "A new wave of innovations and jobs will be created form the need to code/build new high tech tools." Other optimists, like Internet pioneer David Hughes responded, "For all the automation and AI, the 'human hand' will have to be involved on a large scale."

Others had a much more worrisome view of the future of jobs and growing inequality in an automated world, like HarvardX research fellow and MIT lecturer Justin Reich, who stated, "Tech will create new jobs, but there'll be 'losses in the middle and gains of terrible jobs at the bottom.'" Bob Brisco of British Telecom similarly replied, "Robotics is more likely to have displaced blue-collar jobs, deepening the divide between the haves and have-nots..." and chief cybersecurity advisor for Lithuania Vytautas Butrimas even said he expects social unrest by 2020 because of the technological displacement of jobs. Several experts expected even many white-collar desk jobs to be displaced by AI by 2025.

Consensus: Our Public Institutions, Especially Education, Are Not Ready

Perhaps the one point that the surveyed experts came to consensus on was the idea that the future of automation, no matter how gradually or swiftly it comes, will require an enormous shift for policymakers, public institutions and especially our education systems, both of which had better start preparing for the future.

Both sides of the experts' divide over the pace, promise, and/or peril of automation agreed that public education is not adequately preparing the workforce for the technological changes coming.

Internet policy expert Robert Cannon remarked that the current educational system was "designed to meet the needs of Henry Ford," while Internet policy veteran Ed Lyell warned that diminishing literacy in math and science will leave young people "less able to contribute to a new world based on needing those skills." Entrepreneur Fernando Botelho noted, "The quality of education is not evolving at the same rate as technological improvements... solutions exist, but there is no evidence that these are being deployed at the scale our societies need," while online consultant Gail Ann Williams similarly thought "it is hard to imagine a change in our economic, charitable or governmental systems that could fund" the task of making job opportunities in the new technological world just on the horizon.

In words that perfectly describe the complex, confusing picture of a future that will more than likely be realized, and will need to be reckoned with, relatively soon -- whether or not 2025 is an accurate date -- Williams added, "It's nobody's problem, and everyone's."

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