It’s easy to find lots of people who worry that artificial intelligence will create machines so smart that they will destroy a huge swath of jobs currently done by humans. As computers and robots become more adept at everything from driving to writing, say even some technology optimists such as venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, skilled jobs will quickly vanish, widening the income gap even amid unprecedented abundance.
It’s also easy to find lots of people who think those worries are hogwash. Technological advances have always improved productivity and created new jobs to replace those made obsolete, insist smart people such as VC Marc Andreessen.
But it’s rare to find people in the AI field openly fret about their work resulting in the elimination of millions upon millions of jobs. So it was interesting, indeed alarming, to find not one but two AI and machine intelligence experts raise serious concerns this week about the potential impact of recent advances on the labor market.
One was Andrew Ng, the onetime head of the Google Brain project, a founder in the online education startup Coursera, and now chief scientist at the Chinese Internet company Baidu. At two conferences this week, the RE.WORK Deep Learning Summit in San Francisco and the Big Talk Summit in Mountain View, the former Stanford University computer science professor took the opportunity to sketch out AI’s challenges to society as it replaces more and more jobs.
“Historically technology has created challenges for labor,” he noted. But while previous technological revolutions also eliminating many types of jobs and created some displacement, the shift happened slowly enough to provide new opportunities to successive generations of workers. “The U.S. took 200 years to get from 98% to 2% farming employment,” he said. “Over that span of 200 years we could retrain the descendants of farmers.”
But he says the rapid pace of technological change today has changed everything. “With this technology today, that transformation might happen much faster,” he said. Self-driving cars, he suggested could quickly put 5 million truck drivers out of work.
Retraining is a solution often suggested by the technology optimists. But Ng, who knows a little about education thanks to his cofounding of Coursera, doesn’t believe retraining can be done quickly enough. “What our educational system has never done is train many people who are alive today. Things like Coursera are our best shot, but I don’t think they’re sufficient. People in the government and academia should have serious discussions about this.”
His concerns were echoed by Hod Lipson, director of Cornell University’s Creative Machines Lab. “If AI is going to threaten humanity, it’s going to be through the fact that it does almost everything better than almost anyone,” he said.
By the way, both Ng and Lipson, not to mention many other AI experts, pointedly don’t subscribe to the more widely expressed worry by luminaries such as Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk that superintelligent machines will find us superfluous at best and eventually kill us all. “Superintelligence is a distraction,” said Ng, unlikely because we are so far from any possibility of machines that will truly think and possess self-motivation.
It’s time quit worrying about Terminators and Transformers, he said, and focus on the more likely possibility: that machines will kill our jobs long before they kill us.
This article was written by Robert Hof from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.