Technology is exploding. It's clear that robots and other smart machines will continue to become more prominent in our lives in the years ahead—both at home and at work. But will the growth of bots mean more or fewer jobs for human workers?
The top minds in the country are evenly split on that question, according to the report "AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs," released on Wednesday.
The Pew Research Center and Elon University collected predictions from nearly 1,900 technology experts who were asked if automated artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices will have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025.
"Half of the respondents think the impact of AI and robotics on human employment will be positive or at worst neutral, and the other half think that it will displace more jobs than it creates," Aaron Smith, a senior researcher with Pew and co-author of the report, told CNBC.
Up until now, automation has been used to replace blue-collar workers. The coming wave of innovation, it was noted, will eliminate even more of these jobs and it could also threaten significant numbers of white-collar workers. Some of the specific outcomes predicted:
- A transformation of labor, especially in the fields of transportation, fast food and medicine.
- The accelerating shift of work to machines that can boost productivity and cut costs.
- A shrinking of the middle class and expansion of the ranks of the unemployed.
- Creation of new types of work requiring uniquely human capabilities.
- Freedom from day-to-day drudgery that allows people to define work in a more positive and socially beneficial way.
Even when emerging technologies eliminate specific jobs, there might be a positive effect for some people. Smith explained it this way. If driverless cars become widespread, there will be fewer jobs for taxi drivers and truck drivers. But these vehicles could reduce accidents—saving lives—and make it possible for seniors and people with disabilities to get around more easily.
The report does include some dire predictions. Stowe Boyd, lead researcher at Gigaom, wrote:
"An increasing proportion of the world's population will be outside of the world of work—either living on the dole, or benefiting from the dramatically decreased costs of goods to eke out a subsistence lifestyle. 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?"
Mary Joyce, who runs the website Meta-Activism.org, sees the replacement of human workers with robots and algorithms as inevitable:
"There's no reason to believe that firms would behave in any other ways. And social forces, like unions, that would limit these actions, don't have the strength to prevent these changes."
Others said technology will not advance enough in the next decade to substantially impact the job market.
And some think society will adapt by inventing new types of work, especially jobs that take advantage of uniquely human capabilities, such as small-scale, artisanal and handmade modes of production.
Vint Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google, wrote:
"Historically, technology has created more jobs than it destroys and there is no reason to think otherwise in this case. Someone has to make and service all these advanced devices."
The respondents agreed that business leaders, policymakers and educators must all respond more quickly to the rapidly changing workplace. As Howard Rheingold, an educator and Internet sociologist noted:
"Only the best-educated humans will compete with machines. And education systems in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world are still sitting students in rows and columns, teaching them to keep quiet and memorize what is told them, preparing them for life in a 20th century factory."