By now you’re probably aware that a robot is standing right behind you, ready to take your job. Go ahead and look, just don’t make eye contact because robots, like baboons, don’t appreciate that one bit. That’ll just make them want your job all the more.
In reality, the reports of the death of the job are greatly exaggerated. There are just too few things that robots and artificial intelligences can do better than humans at this point. We fleshy beings remain more creative, more dexterous, and more empathetic—a particularly important skill in health care and law enforcement. What is happening is that the machines are taking parts of jobs, which isn’t anything new in the history of human labor: Humans no longer harvest wheat by hand, but with combines; we no longer write everything by hand, but with highly efficient word processors.
Still, this new wave of automation could hurt real bad if we’re not careful. Which is where people like Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, come in: He’s thinking hard about the past, present, and future of work, so you don’t soon have a robot in your cubicle breathing down your neck. WIRED sat down with Brynjolfsson to talk about why the Westworld dystopia is (hopefully) far off, why our human creativity and empathy are so important, and why you should never use a telepresence robot to tell someone they’re dying.
(This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Matt Simon: So, be honest. How worried should I be about an AI stealing my job?
Erik Brynjolfsson: I subscribe to the narrative that mass job replacement isn’t here. What is imminent is the replacement of parts of jobs through AI but also through robotics. I think discussion in the press tends to fall into these two overly simplistic camps. One is, Oh all the jobs are going to be automated away, which is very incorrect. Or it’s, Oh there’s nothing happening, it’s all hype. Those are both incorrect. The right understanding based on our research and many others’ is that these tasks are being automated.
Let’s take one example. There are 27 distinct tasks that a radiologist does. One of them is reading medical images. A machine learning algorithm might be 97 percent accurate and a human might be 95 percent accurate, and you might think, OK have the machine do it. Actually, that would be wrong. You’re better off having the machine do it and then a human check it afterwards. Then you go from 97 percent to 99 percent accuracy because humans and machines make different kinds of mistakes.
But radiologists also consult with patients, coordinate care with other doctors, do all sorts of other things. Machine learning is pretty good at some of those tasks, like reading medical images; it’s not much help at all in comforting a patient or explaining the diagnosis to them.
MS: Which reminds me of the fiasco a while back where a hospital used a teleoperated robot to tell someone they were going to die and people freaked out. Well, duh. I don’t know why more roboticists aren’t warning about this. There’s certain jobs that humans will probably always do be good at, which are those that require the empathy that machines don’t have.
EB: Our brains are wired to react emotionally to other humans. Humans just have a comparative advantage at connecting with each other. We’re very far from Westworld, and even there the robots weren’t always that convincing. That’s not where we are or will be anytime soon. I think this is great news, because most people like the parts of the jobs that they like best, connecting with other people and the creative parts. The part that most people don’t really like is repetitively lifting heavy boxes. That’s exactly what the machines are really good at. It’s a pretty good division of labor.
MS: Which is a fascinating field in robotics right now, getting humans to actually work alongside machines without the machines killing them. The challenge is, adapting people to that.
EB: In a robotics case you’d have a robot maybe doing heavy lifting and then it lifts a part over to a human and the human does the fine manipulation. But that requires a restructuring of that job. I think it’s a little bit of a lazy mindset to look at a business process or a job and just sort of say, OK, how can a machine do that whole thing? That’s rarely the right answer. Usually the right answer requires a little more creativity, which is how can we redesign the process so parts of it can be done by a machine really effectively and other parts are done by a human really effectively, and they fit together in a new way.
MS: The challenge is as much about adapting the machines to work with humans as it is adapting humans to work with machines. But say this technological revolution ends up automating whole jobs and we’re seeing displacement. What is the strategy there? Is it a matter of something like UBI? We’re not super great at retraining here in the United States.
EB: I really don’t want to give short shrift to retraining and education that keep people engaged in the workforce and redeploy them into other tasks. But set the dial far enough in the future and I can imagine a world where yes, machines can do most tasks. Shame on us if we screw that up, because that should be one of the best things ever. We should have vastly more wealth, like orders of magnitude more wealth, less need for work, much better health. And yes something like a UBI will come in gradually. OK health care is free, education is free, maybe some basic level of food, clothing, shelter. Then that floor can gradually rise over time as society gets richer. Years from now people will look back and say, Are you kidding me? You’d make somebody die of starvation if they didn’t work hard enough? That would just seem incredibly cruel.
MS: The elephant in the room here, which might seem unrelated, is climate change. But what does a future look like where we are eliminating more and more human labor, we have a UBI in place, but we are consuming more because we have more wealth. What does that mean for a planet that is already at its tipping point?
EB: I’m going to run against the sort of implicit part of your question. I think it’s going to have us live lighter on the planet. We’re already using less coal, oil and lots of other resources in the United States than we did a decade ago. A digital world is one that is much lighter on the planet and has less impact, whether it’s a digital book compared to a paper book, or video conferencing compared to jet travel. Maybe soon we’ll have artificial meat. If we do it right, which I think we are and we will, we’ll have a lighter impact on the planet.
MS: Sure, technology can get us out of certain messes. But it’s not a miracle cure—we humans have to change too.
EB: Technology is not destiny. We shape our destiny. And I don’t want people to get pessimistic and say it’s hopeless, it’s all getting worse. I also don’t want people to be optimistic and say hey, technology is going to come to the rescue and save us. The right answer is technology is an incredibly powerful tool and if we make the effort we can use this tool to live lighter on the planet. If we put the incentives in place and have a conscious approach to it, we can and will live lighter, but it won’t happen automatically. It will only happen if we aggressively work on it.
EB: Well, keep that negativity sort of in your back pocket as a little bit of a club to say, Look, don’t get complacent. You’ve got to remind people that they have to make an effort. You can’t just sit back and wait for AI to come to the rescue. That’s not how it works.
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