Google Scientist Takes On “Robogeddon”

The future of work has always been a hotly debated subject. The heat has been turned up recently with advances in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). One view, expressed by Stowe Boyd, lead researcher at GigaOM Research, is that robots will yield a net reduction in jobs for humans, “The central question of 2025 will be: What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the ‘bot-based economy?” This view believes that there will be less demand for human labor in the future, resulting in a net reduction in human jobs over time.

An alternative view, however, is that technology is not destiny, and that throughout history, technology has been a job creator overall, not a job destroyer. Dr. Fei-Fei Li, chief AI scientist with Google Cloud expressed this perspective at the Startup Grind Global Conference 2017. Li, who is not an economist, provides, nevertheless, a succinct two-minute economic argument against “robogeddon” (watch until 16:46):

Dr. Li correctly notes that AI and robotics will cause job displacements (they already have), and yet new jobs have been created and will be created in the future. An economy heavily dependent on AI and robotics will demand people who work well with computers and robots, and who are comfortable working in environments of accelerating change. Such an economy will also pay a premium for uniquely human characteristics such as empathy, creativity, judgment, dexterity, touch, or critical thinking that allow businesses to reach deeper into the needs of consumers, as Li notes. The jobs that people perform in the future will be more uniquely “human.”

Technological change always brings uncertainties and disruptions. But history shows that human ingenuity and entrepreneurship has enabled new technologies to coexist with a growing “human” labor force. Some jobs, likely very different jobs than today, never succumb to widespread automation.

The big question is will the U.S. education system evolve to produce people who can compete in the global economy of the future, or will other countries produce the best talent? As the global workforce becomes ever-more interconnected, network-based, and virtual, increasingly someone in Minneapolis will compete with someone in Hong Kong, Bangkok, or New Delhi. It is increasingly important that U.S. schools focus on those uniquely human skills and characteristics that will be highly valued in the future.