An Inevitable Takeover?

There are those who believe it’s inevitable that artificial intelligence (AI) will take over many jobs currently held by human employees. In some industries, this trend has already begun, and experts have predicted we’ll see an uptick in intelligent automation over the next decade. Former Google China president Kai-Fu Lee believes the “takeover” by intelligent machines will happen even sooner.

Speaking on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on November 13, Lee said that half of all human jobs will be taken over by AI within the next decade, marking the fastest period of disruption in history. “AI, at the same time, will be a replacement for blue collar and white collar jobs,” said Lee, who’s now the chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures.

Lee also believes that intelligent machines will go after white collar jobs first, which is contrary to the predictions others have made. “The white collar jobs are easier to take because they’re pure a quantitative analytical process. Reporters, traders, telemarketing, telesales, customer service, [and] analysts, there can all be replaced by a software,” Lee told CNBC. “To do blue-collar, some of the work requires hand-eye coordination, things that machines are not yet good enough to do.”

In a comment sent via email, AIVA Technologies CEO Pierre Barreau said he agrees with Lee. “Blue collar jobs require breakthroughs in both software and hardware/robotics to be automated when a lot of white collar jobs will probably just require software breakthroughs,” he said.

In an email to Futurism, TechCode general manager Luke Tang added, “AI is already replacing humans in some areas, e.g. analysts writing reports, legal professions doing discovery; and will soon replace more humans in other areas, e.g. truck drivers, investment managers.”

A Little Help From UBI

Another intriguing idea Lee shared with CNBC explored the potential for universal basic income (UBI) to cushion unemployment due to automation, cautioning that “optimists naively assume that UBI will be a catalyst for people to reinvent themselves professionally.”

Lee believes UBI could compensate in certain areas, but won’t be as effective at offsetting the repercussions in areas that endure traditional economic instability. Where recent UBI trials have demonstrated effectiveness is in encouraging workers to find employment — which Lee doesn’t think will be enough.

“We need to retrain and adapt so that everyone can find a suitable profession.”

Indeed, education and retraining have been proposed by other experts, including World Bank president Jim Yong Kim who believes we must invest in people as a solution for the job displacement automation would cause. Barreau agrees with that assessment. “One of the most important challenges that arise from job automation is making sure that our education system keeps up with the demand for new jobs.”

While Lee doesn’t necessarily foresee the jobs lost to AI being replaced by ones designed to service and program robots (asserting that it’s rather naive of people to think that would be the case). But Google chief engineer Ray Kurzweil has said it’s not that the jobs won’t exist — it’s just that they don’t exist yet. 

Barreau, on the other hand, does believe that “jobs will evolve.” Much in the same way people in the 1980s didn’t expect everyone to one day own personal computers, it may not be an obvious solution right now, Barreau said, but one he ultimately believes will come to pass.