Is a robot ready to steal your job?

Are our jobs safe despite the rise of AI, or will supercomputer-equipped robots eventually render human labour obsolete? EDGAR investigates…

Peter Iantorno March 8, 2015

“With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon… We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.”

These might sound like the words of some crazy anti-technology campaigner who believes that evil robot overlords are on the rise and will soon take over the world, but it may surprise you to know that they are, in fact, the words of Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of Tesla - a company which has invested millions into AI in the form of a self-driving car. And Musk isn't the only big name to warn of the risks of AI.

For another notable worrier, look no further than the biggest of big names in the technology sector: the richest man in the world, Bill Gates. In an online question and answers session earlier this year, Gates said: "I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence. First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern. I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don't understand why some people are not concerned."

Strong words from two people so successful and well-respected in the tech world, but does everyone agree with them? A 2014 study by the US-based PEW Research Center asked industry experts the question: "Will networked, automated, artificial intelligence applications and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?" The experts were split, with 48 per cent saying "yes" and 52 per cent thinking that technology will create more jobs than it displaces. elon musk tesla motorsAnd without wanting to dismiss the opinions of two of the foremost minds in modern technology, you have to say that history is firmly on the side of the 52 per cent.

Ever since the Luddites objected to the use of mass-production machinery in the Industrial Revolution in England in the early 1800s, advancement of technology has created more jobs than it has displaced. Although in Gates and Musk's defence, it must be said that AI is a rather different proposition to the sewing machine the Luddites were so fearful of... The main difference between then and now is the sheer speed of development of artificial intelligence.

A good indicator of exactly how fast computers are growing is Moore's Law, which is named after Gorden E. Moore, the co-founder of Intel, and states that computer power approximately doubles every two years. Since the term was coined in 1965, the exponential growth has followed this pattern almost exactly, and current calculations estimate that, if anything, the rate is only going to speed up.

For example, in years gone by, a CPU as powerful as the one in your iPhone would cost many millions of dollars, and take up the size of an entire building. Now you can buy it for a few hundred and hold it in the palm of your hand. If the current rate of development is maintained, we're on course to achieve an affordable computer that rivals the power of the human brain by 2025.Deep blue chess computer Deep Blue, the giant supercomputer that beat chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, is nowhere near as powerful as an iPhone.

But what does this all actually mean in terms of real-life, day-to-day applications - specifically those that could cost us our jobs? Well, If you're a taxi driver, yours could be one of the first to go, because after Google's 2012 unveiling of its autonomous car and the subsequent stream of other major car companies following suit, self-driving cars are very much on the cusp of becoming commercially viable.

But before we sit back smugly and declare that at least a computer could never do our job, it turns out that even us journalists aren't safe. That's right, there are currently algorithms that can (and do) write articles on real estate, business and finance at a quality that's almost indistinguishable from those written by a human. Just last week Associated Press announced that it would be using automated technology to provide thousands of articles about U.S. college sports.

In fact, the company AP use, Automated Insights, generates millions of personalised articles for users of the online game Fantasy Football already. Every week, the system uses real-life data to generate a personalised game summary newsletter for each user, which is tailored especially according to the players he has picked.Robbie Allen Automated Insights"We sort of flip the traditional content creation model on its head," CEO of the company Robbie Allen (above) told "Instead of one story with a million page views, we'll have a million stories with one page view each." In the future this could be taken even further, with everyone having their own personal robo-journalist, generating individual stories and articles tailored especially for them.

Aside from the ethical questions and the debate around their potential to steal jobs, one criticism often levelled at robots is that they lack the human touch. After all, could a robot reproduce the kind of thoughtful care and attention needed to, say, send a handwritten letter to someone? Well, yes as it happens, there's now a machine (Bond, video below) that can produce letters in your own handwriting.

All this points to an incredibly efficient yet depressingly sterile future, where the only human interaction we get is artificially created, and super-intelligent computers have developed to a stage where they are simply better at almost every job than humans are. It may be in the next 15 years or it may be in the next 150, but it seems certain now that sooner or later super-intelligent AI will arrive, and in all likelihood, it will be the last invention we ever make.

Image credit: Twitter/Robbie Allen