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Get Ready to Embrace Your Smart Robot Co-Worker

January 13, 2017, 4:01 PM UTC

Artificial intelligence is a much-feared development, but likely for the wrong reasons. The concern isn’t that machines will rise up against us so much that the hunks of metal and wires will make humans irrelevant. Andrew Ng, the Baidu scientist who helped start Google’s AI project, dubbed Google Brain, says he and his machine learning pals amuse themselves by theorizing which jobs computers will make redundant.

The prospects are daunting. For all the comfort, efficiency, and safety they promise, autonomous vehicles will throw millions of drivers out of work. Agriculture looks set to be even more mechanized than it already it is. Turning over dangerous jobs to robots, from oil drilling to bomb defusing, should accelerate as computer “brains” get “smarter.”

This morning McKinsey Global Institute, the consulting firm’s think tank, applies some sobering statistical rigor to the already glum outlook. In a new report, available here, McKinsey’s theorists suggest that “49% of the activities people are paid to do in the global economy have the potential to be automated.”

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The report, “A Future That Works: Automation, Employment, and Productivity,” spews data that might be too specific to take overly seriously. It projects that while only 5% of occupations can be fully automated, about 60% of occupations can be at least 30% automated. (As I shared with an agreeable Ng in Las Vegas last week, I’m highly confident that magazine feature writing and onstage interviewing will be among the last crafts to be automated.)

All is not lost, says McKinsey. While AI will increase productivity as it’s zapping all those jobs, the changes will take longer than most think. And by the time they arrive, forward-thinking companies and policymakers will have ratcheted up critical retraining efforts. AI also will encourage ambitious public-policy initiatives, says McKinsey. “If full or partial automation results in a significant reduction in employment or pressure on wages, some ideas such as negative income taxes, universal basic income, conditional transfers, and adapted social safety nets could be considered and tested,” says the report.

Welcome to the future. But first, have a good weekend.