Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google parent company Alphabet, isn’t too worried about the prospect of robots stealing everyone’s jobs.
At a talk at MIT’s computer science and AI lab on Wednesday, the high-profile tech executive described himself as a “job elimination denier.”
His argument? That while some jobs are undeniably being lost to automation, more jobs will ultimately be created to replace them as a result of technological advancements.
The threat that automation poses to many traditional jobs is of serious concern to many economists and social scientists. Some fear that, if left unchecked, AI and technological developments could leave many people out of work and unable to find new jobs.
A recent study published by PwC estimated that as many as 38% of jobs in the US could be “susceptible to automation by robots and AI” by the early 2030s — with 30% in the UK at risk, 35% in Germany, and 21% in Japan — although it believes jobs will be created elsewhere in the economy to help offset this. And the World Economic Forum has warned that the “fourth industrial revolution” will cost more than 5 million jobs by 2020, just as jobs were lost as a result of automation in previous periods of rapid industrial progress.
When asked about the impact of AI on jobs, Schmidt said that “there’s no question that there’s job dislocation,” but that that’s not the whole story.
“The economic folks would say that you can see the job that’s lost, but you very seldom can see the job that’s created. Let’s give an example: Let’s imagine a scenario where California allows a thousand-pound truck to be driven down Highway Five with no person in it … There’s no question that driver, and this is an important job, is missing. Could there be other jobs created by virtue of the loss of that job? There could be,” he said.
“I’m going to take the position that, because no-one really knows the answer, that this time is not different [to previous industrial revolutions], that while we have a tremendous dislocation in jobs — I’m not denying that — in aggregate, there will be more jobs.”
The truck Schmidt cites is an interesting example — because Waymo, another of Alphabet’s companies, is dedicated to developing self-driving cars. Its vehicles have already driven millions of miles. If successful, it could see millions of human truck drivers — one of the most common jobs in the United States — made obsolete.
Fundamentally, Schmidt has an optimistic approach to the problem, and one that puts the emphasis on providing training and skills to the workforce so they can take advantage of new job opportunities. But the exec also acknowledged another dark facet of the internet age: Rising income inequality. “The gap between the winners and the … service workers is getting larger,” he said. “If you’re in an information age, who are the winners? Well, the people who have the information.”
Others take a more pessimistic approach to the issue of automation than Schmidt. Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, gave a sober warning in December 2016: “The fundamental challenge is that, alongside its great benefits, every technological revolution mercilessly destroys jobs and livelihoods — and therefore identities — well before the new ones emerge.”
He went on: “This was true of the eclipse of agriculture and cottage industry by the industrial revolution, the displacement of manufacturing by the service economy, and now the hollowing out of many of those middle-class services jobs through machine learning and global sourcing.”
In other words: Even if new jobs are ultimately created to replace those lost, it won’t be straight away — and that could cause serious problems.