The Dark Side Of Automated Systems Is Bright
March 20, 2017 Dan Burger
Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates have each waved a red flag regarding the risks that could arrive with future artificial intelligence systems. To not be concerned is reckless and ignorant of the data that suggests the potential for harm. This isn’t a fear that machines with super smart operating systems will become the new Manifest Destiny with humans subjugated to supporting actor roles, but it does have its sinister bearing.
The fear factor grows from the continual eroding of jobs lost to automation and the economic disaster that result. Cries of “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” and “round up the Luddites” notwithstanding, there is reason to seek deeper understanding.
To calm the fears and provide a seemingly authoritative voice of reason, we have a McKinsey Global Institute report titled A Future That Works: Automation, Employment and Productivity. The report estimates that approximately 50 percent of workforce activities could be automated by adapting current technologies. The common, minimal-empathy reaction from those above the low-skill, low-wage water mark is that we live in a dog eat dog world and some dogs will not make it. But when the middle and high-skill dogs start facing the threat, the meaning of fear changes.
No worries. McKinsey’s report says the full effects of automation will take years to run its course, while the pace of automation adjusts to factors such as the cost of technology, the supply of skilled labor (how good are your skills, by the way?), social acceptance and regulatory braking. It could take a long time to see significant economic and social change. Of course, on a more personal level, the hammer could come down next week.
Business processes will be transformed. That’s a given, McKinsey says. Many workers will have to change. According to the company’s productivity estimates, people displaced by automation will find other employment. Periods of mass unemployment are unlikely, so social unrest and its potential economic impact is not expected.
It’s not like we haven’t seen this before, is the report’s deduction. The shifts in the labor force will occur during multiple decades. This will be similar to the long-term, technology-enabled shifts from agricultural to industrial workforces and economies in the 20th century. Those transformations avoided long-term mass unemployment, because they created new types of work.
IT workers, like other professions, will be impacted as additional IT-related processes and tasks are automated. Rules-based, repetitive processes that involve structured data will eventually be automated. New skills will be required. Many companies won’t survive with the IT systems they relied on for the past 25 years. Some will manage as is, but most will make changes. Job losses will occur. How bad it will get will probably continue to worry the likes of Hawking, Musk, Gates and you.
The McKinsey Global Institute is the business and economics research arm of McKinsey & Company. Its report incorporates business and economic research to forecast micro-to-macro trends.