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Rethinking AI; rethinking our jobless future

The American fascination with robots began a long, long time ago. Just think: The Jetsons, I, Robot, and so many other movies and books that have permeated our pop culture.

Americans have arguably been first when it comes to most technological innovations, and no one will deny their excitement over smart(er)phones and driverless cars. But, there’s another side to artificial intelligence. Some would call it the dark side.

No one is laying awake at night because their Roomba vacuumed the floors (alone) while they were at work. Few are stressing about the shelf space they gained when Alexa kicked out the encyclopedias. But people are worried about their livelihood being replaced.

Down the path of the blacksmith

Losing your job to a machine is scary. I get it. You might think that as a creative writer, my job would be (somewhat) safe from automation. That assumption very well might be incorrect. The Natural Language Generator could mean that my job is as obsolete one day as blacksmiths. No need for horseshoes when we’ve got cars. No need for writers when we’ve got the NLG.

My industry is not the only one. All professions from truck drivers to cashiers to coal miners to assembly line workers are on

The question that keeps coming up is, “how do we combat AI and automation to keep from losing our jobs?” I want to change the rhetoric a little bit. Instead, I want to ask, “how do we work with AI and automation to change the way we think about our jobs?”

We humans can change the fight

At SXSW 2017, Jeff Howe, author of Crowdsourcing and Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future, questioned what we are (and aren’t) doing to integrate the inevitable AI and automation into our work lives. “The conversations we need to be having are not ‘how should we be eradicating unemployment,’ but ‘how can we be embracing unemployment?’”

According to Carl Bendiki Frey and Michael A. Osborne at the University of Oxford, 47 percent of U.S. employment is in the high-risk category for potential automation within the next decade or two. On the surface, that’s a lot of people potentially facing a jobless future.

But Howe challenges that line of thinking, saying we need to change our lens… change our minds. “How do we conceive of what does it mean to be employed? To have a career?” he implores.

Automation does come at a cost

One in seven people work in the trucking and transportation industry. That’s 10 million Americans who stand to lose their job when (not if) self-driving trucks are debuted on the highways of America.

Self-driving trucks will be more gas, time, and cost efficient. Why wouldn’t companies implement them? Self-driving trucks will have fewer accidents, can drive 24-hours a day, and can reduce drag and gas use by traveling in platoons.

But, with the use of self-driving trucks, millions of people will lose their jobs. Where will those people go? What work will they do?

In the past, technological revolutions have created job loss, but they’ve also created new jobs. Howe likens present day to the Luddites and looms. “They thought we were going down a frightening path and they thought they’d be out of work. And they were right! But textile automation made cloth so inexpensive that more jobs were created!”

In the past, technological revolutions have created job loss, but they’ve also created new jobs. Howe likens present day to the Luddites and looms.

And those blacksmiths that stopped making horseshoes? They became car mechanics or machinists.

Another major example of job loss due to automation comes from your friendly neighborhood delivery service: Amazon. With their acquisition of Whole Foods, Amazon stands at the ready to eliminate the need for cashiers. They’ve actually already done it with their Amazon Go store.

If they’re not scanning your food items and placing them in a bag, what job will cashiers do?

These professions employ a lot of people. And sooner than we may believe, they all might be out of work. Most of them don’t spend the time island-hopping and drinking fruity cocktails. Research has shown that when we take away someone’s livelihood, we take away their will to live. Without work, who are we? (Yeah, I’m taking this deep. Join me.)

Go ahead and take what I hate

Recent studies have shown that 20 percent of people who have been unemployed for a year or more are depressed. Our work gives us purpose and purpose helps us to find happiness. I think this is true for humans, but especially all of us Americans who are driven by the spirit of innovation and the bootstrapping American dream. We celebrate those who pull themselves up and get to work.

So, instead of fearing AI, let it take over the rote jobs, the jobs that humans hate. If a robot can do the jobs that we detest (or don’t get much fulfillment from), why would we fight that?

For my line of work, that’s social media. IMHO, it’s a boring job that’s never finished. At least once a week I’m expected to come up with a witty, creative, and visually beautiful post. Hah! It’s almost as fun as vacuuming. And by fun, I mean not. Ask my boyfriend—in the four years that we’ve been living together, I’ve vacuumed our house once. (Seriously, he always does the vacuuming. I think we need a Roomba.)

What if we let the AI and automation do the sucky jobs? Let humans do the jobs that take our creativity, our brilliance, our humanness.

What if we let the AI and automation do the sucky jobs? Let humans do the jobs that take our creativity, our brilliance, our humanness.

Customer service professionals have been saying this for years. Let interactive self-service, in-app messaging, and chatbots do the pedestrian work—fielding common questions, guiding visitors to specific web pages, or informing customers about basic (and boring) policies. In these scenarios, customers are happy, businesses save money, and frontline agents get to do more valued (and fun) work all day.

I realize that this isn’t a solution for every profession that will be affected by these changes, but I want to change the conversation and force you to examine AI’s potential benefits on our well-being. How can we use it to better people’s lives?

This is an opportunity

Could those workers faced with a jobless future be trained for roles that would better our communities? Could they be trained to work on green energy? Or figuring out better waste management? We still need humans to fill certain jobs—but which jobs are those and what skills do those workers need? And for the rest? We can’t ignore them; we must seek solutions.

People who are no longer eligible for their career need to think about what else they can do, said Howe. He mentioned solving local problems or giving back into communities (poverty in middle America, opioid usage). But sadly, Howe also acknowledged that there is no structure or incentive in place for people to solve problems without an income to offset. (Volunteering does not presently pay the bills.)

I think Howe said it best: “In order to maintain a robust economy, we will have to redistribute the money and the job creation. But, it will get worse before it gets better. In the near-term, the opportunities will be with the wealthy and the entrepreneurs capable of grabbing the opportunities. We need to prioritize policy for distribution.”

Instead of facing AI and automation with fear, let’s face it with our humanness; our grit and our creativity. Together, we can find a solution for all of us.