Current advances in machine learning are spectacular, but highly misunderstood. There’s a lot of hype, almost panic, around artificial intelligence right now, with Elon Musk doing much of the stirring. Machines aren’t becoming conscious and they’re not developing ‘general intelligence’ – yet, anyway. Machine learning today is just another wave of automation and we have had dozens of these throughout history. Each has been a huge force for good. If we get it right, AI will make starting a business easier and create jobs. To understand how automation always creates more jobs than it replaces, we must look to the past…
The history of automation
Almost all inventions that changed the world can be viewed as types of automation. The wheel essentially automated ‘carrying things’; the compass automated orientation; the printing press automated laborious process of copying books; batteries automated work in general. Cars, tractors, steam power, trains, aeroplanes, transistors, computers, telegrams, telephones, the internet… all automated something.
And all of them destroyed jobs, if you choose to view them through that pessimistic lens. But they all made new jobs possible. New industries – entire economies – sprang into being. Let’s look at a few in more detail:
The printing press
In the 14th century all written information had to be hand-written. The invention of the printing-press radically changed this. If you were a scribe at the time, you probably feared that press automation was going to steal your job – and it did. On the other hand, by the 18th century, European book output had risen by a hundred times. Several new industries were created. Most importantly education levels soared.
David Ricardo, a prominent Victorian economist, famously feared machine automation. Steam-powered machines transformed Britain during the last part of the 18th century. Many jobs vanished and there was a period of wage stagnation, known as “Engels’ pause”, where for some, conditions temporarily became worse. Then steam automation drove an unprecedented industrial expansion during the 19th century and average wages rose.
Petroleum power & electricity
As well as replacing horses with cars, diesel tractors transformed agriculture in the 20th century. Automation stole back-breaking, tedious work in the field from humans and horses. Machines made mining easier. Sewing machines, the Hoover and especially the washing machine, massively improved lives of those in ‘sweated industries’.
Automation has consistently given the average person both a better quality of life and more time to learn.
Could AI steal all jobs?
The idea that work is something that can ‘run out’ is a misunderstanding of what work is. In its purest sense, work is always abundant; there’s always more we want to do. Just because a machine can do or make something faster and more consistently than a human doesn’t make it automatically more attractive. We pay more for artisan breads, cheeses, cakes, chocolates and beers than we do for their mass-produced counterparts. Indeed, there’s actually been a huge upsurge in artisan careers. As AI makes work easier and cheaper, it expands the opportunities and possibilities for the type of work we might take on.
Yes, the nature of work is changing, but this is not new. It’s simply that the changes are coming faster than ever, and change causes fear. It’s the fear of the unknown.
“Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
We must be ready to adapt to change more quickly. The key to this? Education.
Automation and education are, in fact, intrinsically linked. In the UK in 1900, the average child spent just 2.5 years in school. By 2010 that figure had leapt to 12.5 years thanks to the wealth generation and free time made available by automation. This link is going to become even stronger.
Thanks to the invention of the internet and world wide web, information is (almost) free and available to anyone. With online courses and YouTube lectures, you can pretty much teach yourself any subject you wish from your bedroom. Just as Web 2.0 took the one-way-information-flow web and made it a social, a two-way conversation, online education is undergoing an AI revolution: Education 3.0 is smart and personal. AI tutors like ours, who are not only subject experts but learn and to adapt to your precise needs, will enable you to, for example, learn a language faster and more completely than has ever been possible.
Soon, there will be an AI to help you learn anything you choose.
Isn’t an AI tutor just stealing another job category, though? On the contrary, the demand for education is constantly rising, and supply simply can’t keep up. The ratio of teachers to students is increasingly problematic and teachers face battle huge problems with work overload and ‘differentiating’ tuition to individuals. AI classroom assistants will make human teaching easier, more enjoyable and more effective than ever, allowing us to keep up with increasing pace of change.
The future of AI is bright
AI will continue to take drudgery out of life, creating whole new industries and job categories. It will make learning new skills easier and quicker, so humans can do work that’s more satisfying. It’s hard, if not impossible, to predict what these new categories will be, but I believe the AI-assisted future will be a very bright one indeed.
Gareth Davies is the CEO of Kwiziq.com