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It’s OK If Robots Take Over Our Jobs So Long As This Happens

April 25, 2017, 4:31 PM UTC
Couple Of Robot Waiters Show In Yiwu's Restaurant
YIWU, CHINA - MAY 18: (CHINA OUT) A "male" robot waiter delivers meals for customers at robot-themed restaurant on May 18, 2015 in Yiwu, Zhejiang province of China. Sophomore Xu Jinjin in 22 years old from Hospitality Management of Yiwu Industrial and Commercial College managed a restaurant where a pair of robot acted as waiters. The "male" one was named "Little Blue" (for in blue color) and the "female" one was "Little Peach" (for in pink) and they could help order meals and then delivered them to customers along the magnetic track and said: "Here're your meals, please enjoy". According to Xu Jinjin, They had contacted with the designer to present more robot waiters to make the restaurant a real one that depends completely on robots. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
Photograph by ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

Barely six months ago, President Donald Trump rode a wave of anti-establishment sentiment to the White House. One of his central campaign promises was to bring back jobs to American workers, vowing to “Buy American, Hire American.”

The political merits of this approach can be debated, but there’s something that can’t be denied: Some jobs can’t be brought back, especially those replaced by technology and artificial intelligence. Automation stands apart from the debate around immigration or globalization. Robots can now assemble cars, around the clock, without much help from humans. Machines can write stories for news publishers. It’s simply the way it goes — technology does displace workers – but, perhaps more surprising, is that many people don’t object to artificial intelligence (AI) taking our jobs. In some cases, they actually are in favor of it.

Because there’s so much noise and hype around AI. It’s difficult to determine what matters and how it will impact the future of business.

AI’s potential to boost business outweighs the potential downside of job losses, according to a PWC survey of 2,500 business executives and consumers. But this comes with one key caveat: People want AI platforms that replace humans to provide more affordable solutions and products to the wider population. For example, 80% of respondents say it’s of greater importance to have access to more affordable legal advice than to preserve the jobs of lawyers. And 69% would rather have more affordable, convenient and reliable transportation than preserve the jobs of taxi drivers. Respondents felt that if human jobs are replaced, the AI platform replacing them needs to benefit the wider population.

Businesses are already making the necessary decisions and investments to utilize AI to a greater degree (54% said they are making “substantial investments” in AI). Executives cite the potential for AI to elevate employees from minute, tedious projects to allow them to do more important work, use digital assistants to better manage schedules, and detect data trends to better inform strategy. But to make this all work and not have mass unemployment, everyone needs to be prepared to gain the competencies to work effectively with new technologies, as people will need skills for platforms that may have not even existed just a few years ago. The majority of experts expect technology like AI to create more jobs than it displaces by the year 2025, according to Pew, but these jobs may be completely different from roles that exist today.

What’s most surprising is that executives are willing to trust AI for such important decisions as promotions and salaries: 69% thought an AI platform would be as fair or even more fair as a human in making promotion and salary decisions, but 86% of respondents would still want to talk to a human after a review decision was made by AI, suggesting that people want the intelligence of an AI platform, but paired with the empathy of a human. This theory goes beyond the business world: Even in a day and age when it’s difficult to arrange an appointment with a doctor, the survey found that 77% prefer to visit a doctor in person versus taking an assessment at home with a robotic smart kit. These results suggest that the safest human jobs will be those that involve a person-to-person connection that can’t be easily replaced by machine.

People do have concerns about AI. Privacy is a big concern for people, with 87% citing privacy as a “major concern” for AI, while 23% of respondents believe AI will have serious, negative implications. While people see the positive potential of AI, they also want safeguards to ensure it’s not abused.

Overall, people are more excited about the potential for good than they are worried about the negatives. AI provides the potential to make services vastly more accessible, more affordable, more efficient for everyone, and even more personal. And that’s something that all of us, no matter what side of the political aisle we’re on, should be able to get behind.

Tom Puthiyamadam is a principal and global digital services leader with PwC’s advisory practice based in New York.