New, more-modern manufacturing processes, including the use of robots, have gutted the number of high-paying factory jobs in the U.S. and caused economic angst in large portions of the country. The movement of manufacturing plants overseas has compounded the problem and fueled the working class’s fear of economic change—as anyone who paid passing attention to the recent U.S. presidential election probably noticed.
But there is another, related technological revolution gaining much more attention lately that will have an even larger impact on the economy, this time on more-comfortable white-collar professionals: the rise of artificial intelligence. AI has already prompted hand-wringing from people like factory workers and taxi drivers who fear being replaced by smart technology. Over the coming years, though, we predict job losses for executive assistants, radiologists and lawyers too. A report issued last year by the World Economic Forum predicted that “disruptive labor market changes”, including the rise of AI, would lead to the loss of more than 5.1 million jobs before 2020. Two-thirds of those jobs will be white-collar office roles.
Coupled with Elon Musk’s recently announced plans to implant electrodes in people’s brains (through a new company called Neuralink), it all sounds like a fairly bleak, dystopian future (or maybe revenge by the blue-collar class). But we don’t think the news is all bad. First, in some fields, at least initially, we believe AI will complement human skills and reasoning, and not completely replace them. What’s more, as artificial intelligence gains steam and truly starts powering a fourth Industrial Revolution, spawning innovation in fields as diverse as medicine, agriculture and education, entrepreneurs have a huge opportunity to remake entire industries. Finally, a world powered by AI could actually mean a better quality of life for many of us—a shorter work week, perhaps, or even a guaranteed income. Here are our predictions for a world powered by artificial intelligence.
Completely new classes of jobs
New waves of automation have always stoked worries about job losses. But with each new wave of technology—starting with the first industrial revolution in the late 18th century, when the textile industry and others were mechanized–economies have reconfigured and standards of living increased. We believe the same pattern will emerge as artificial intelligence rapidly seeps into most economic sectors, allowing machines to learn and make decisions just like humans.
Already, technology is surpassing human ability in many areas. Humans can no longer compete with machines in chess or Go. Even poker, which involves guessing if your opponent is bluffing, looks to be on a similar trajectory. It’s also becoming clear that machines can, or soon will be able to, drive cars more safely than humans. While the fatality rate for human drivers is about one per roughly 93 million miles driven, late last year the electric-car company Tesla announced that over 222 million miles had been driven using its Autopilot feature–with only one known fatality.
Historically, even as technology and automation replaced human labor for some mechanical tasks, and in finding information, the key decisions were left to humans—people still had to design the machines on the factory floor, or program the computers. We are entering an age when robots and other smart machines can now do this as well. It’s a frightening proposition—“smart” surgery, anyone?—but probably inevitable. AI-powered fighter-jet software recently beat a retired human pilot in a simulation, suggesting the technology could be used to augment real pilots—or possibly replace them–in combat.
The good news is that our children and grandchildren will probably be working in jobs we can’t even conceive of today. This year’s Glassdoor list of the “50 Best Jobs in America” contains only a few (professor, physician) that would be recognizable to Americans a century ago—or even 20 years ago. Glassdoor’s top picks for 2017 include positions such as data scientist, DevOps engineer, UX designer and mobile developer. (Not listed: farmer or telegraph operator.)
In the near term—an AI investment gold rush
The extremely fast rate at which AI is transforming various industries obviously has a near-term upside for entrepreneurs and the people who fund them. We are already seeing this in futuristic fields like autonomous driving, where giants like Google and Uber are moving forward with self-driving projects.
Startups are getting into the act too. Uber recently spent $680 million buying the startup Otto, which makes self-driving technology for trucks, which tend to drive for long stretches on obstacle-free highways. There is also nuTonomy, which creates software for self-driving cars and operates a small fleet of autonomous vehicles in Singapore. Just this month, chip giant Intel forked out more than $15 billion to buy Israeli technology company Mobileye, which makes nuts-and-bolts equipment necessary for self-driving cars, such as cameras, sensor chips, networking and other software. Intel believes the market for vehicle systems, data and services could top $70 billion by 2030.
Healthcare is another area ripe for AI disruption. A number of companies, including Montreal’s Imagia and San Francisco’s Bay Labs, are using deep learning to improve medical imaging and save lives.
Imagia’s technology focuses on detecting cancer, while Bay Labs has initially developed software to automatically read ultrasounds. The technology could help detect ailments like rheumatic heart disease, and is especially needed in rural areas and poor countries which may have imaging machines, but no humans trained to interpret the scans. Eventually, we believe machines reading MRIs and X-rays will replace radiologists in all settings.
More leisure time
Our new, smarter world will have other benefits, too. Increasing automation could mean that most humans will simply work less in the future. The American 40-hour work week could become a thing of the past. This will leave more time for leisure and other relaxing pursuits.
You’ll certainly spend less time driving and potentially even being driven through bad traffic. Academic studies have shown we could more than triple the capacity of existing freeways through widespread adoption of autonomous driving, which means most cars would be following each other at close distance and at a steady speed.
Off the freeway, imagine driving to your favorite downtown restaurant, getting out of your car, and having the car go park itself. That frees up time for you. And the car wouldn’t need to park in a nearby parking space; downtown parking could be reduced and that space could be used for more stores, restaurants, offices, or homes. If you change transportation, you also change, and potentially improve, space usage and urban design.
AI even has applications in areas like customer service that could improve quality of life. Companies including Agent.ai, Digital Genius and True AI are all developing technologies to help customer-support teams and call centers handle inquiries more quickly and efficiently—so you don’t have to spend an hour on hold. And many companies are already using AI to make shopping easier and more pleasant, anticipating what you might want to buy based on your past purchases and other factors.
Overall, we think the benefits of artificial intelligence will outweigh the negatives as this technology transforms our economy and society. Just remember, in 1890, the average workweek for full-time manufacturing employees in the U.S. was 100 hours. At the rate we’re going, it might be down to 15 or 20 hours by the end of this century. That would leave us plenty of time to enjoy brand-new products, services and entertainment options from companies that haven’t even been invented yet—all from the backseats of our clean, driverless cars.