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Arguing About Artificial Intelligence Killing Jobs

December 3, 2019, 4:06 PM UTC

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If you ever want to start an argument, ask someone whether artificial intelligence will destroy jobs or create them. 

A few weeks ago, Fortune reported on research firm Forrester predicting that machine learning would likely cause massive job losses for cubicle workers, loan processors, and other occupations that rely on repetitive tasks that software can automate. Since then, I’ve received a lot of feedback about the topic, from people either agreeing with Forrester’s predictions or dismissing them. 

For instance, Robert D. Atkinson, the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) think tank, pointed to a 2017 study by his pro-technology organization that said the current fear of A.I. is overblown. The “labor market is not experiencing unprecedented technological disruption,” the report said.  

Although the ITIF report found that technology advances have eliminated certain jobs over the past several decades, technology has ultimately benefited the U.S. economy, resulting in more overall jobs.

As the study says, “Innovation allows workers and firms to produce more, so wages go up and prices go down, which increases spending, which in turn creates more jobs in new occupations, though more so in existing occupations (from cashiers to nurses and doctors).” 

Another reader, Gabe G., said that comments by Forrester vice president Huard Smith that A.I. would cause significant loss in future software coding jobs were “silly.” “AI isn’t magic, intuiting what’s needed to create useful software,” Gabe wrote. “Same as blockchain and quantum computing, AI’s hype vastly exceeds its potential.”

Reader Kerry B. agreed with the premise of Forrester’s research and said the “call on the cubicle jobs being kaput is spot on.” He had recently attended an event in Dallas for lawyers focused on “the pending jobs collapse” and said a speaker there outlined a troubling future for attorneys while suggesting that they start preparing for huge job losses. 

It should be noted that the Brookings Institute also recently released a study about A.I.’s impact on jobs and found “that better-educated, better-paid workers (along with manufacturing and production workers) will be the most affected by the new AI technologies, with some exceptions.” The premise of the study was that white-collar employees are increasingly using machine-learning software, meaning that mid-career professional and technical workers will feel the brunt.

Whether you believe that A.I. will lead to massive job loss depends on your own personal view. If A.I. is as powerful as some corporate marketing suggests, then its potential negative impact on jobs could be devastating. But if A.I.’s capabilities are overhyped, as reader Gabe G. noted, then maybe the next few decades will be no different than the past.

Jonathan Vanian 
@JonathanVanian
jonathan.vanian@fortune.com

A.I. IN THE NEWS

Huawei plants A.I. seeds in Singapore. Chinese tech company Huawei has debuted an A.I. research lab in Singapore and plans to train over 1,000 software developers in A.I., reported The Straits Times of Singapore. Other big tech companies with A.I. research offices in Singapore include Salesforce and Alibaba.

Warehouse mania. Aeon, Japan’s biggest supermarket operator, has signed a deal with British online grocer Ocado Group to outfit Aeon’s facilities with robots and related automation technology to better compete with Amazon, the Nikkei Asian Review reported. Ocado claims that with its robots and other technology “it can ship orders out of its warehouses in 15 minutes, about five times as fast as the competition,” the article said.

Considering using A.I. for hiring? Several companies and researchers are developing A.I. that promises “more accountability, and combats — rather than perpetuates — employment discrimination,” reported PBS News Hour. The article highlights job-recruiting startup Blendoor and noted “a company that used Blendoor to hire interns increased their underrepresented minority by six times the amount they had recruited the previous year.”

China has its eyes on A.I. Chinese tech companies like ZTE, Dahua, and China Telecom are attempting to influence international standards on facial recognition technologies, The Financial Times reported. “Standard writing gives companies an edge in the market by aligning global rules with the specifications of their own proprietary technology,” the article said.

EYE ON A.I. TALENT

The state of Illinois hired Tammy Roust to be its chief data officer, news publication Statescoop reported. Roust was previously an associate director and risk analyst for the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

Cosmetics company Glossier hired Pawan Uppuluri to be the startup’s chief technology officer, tech publication GeekWire reported. Uppuluri previously worked at Amazon as a director in charge of Alexa-related projects, among other roles.

EYE ON A.I. RESEARCH

Facial scanning as a heart-monitoring tool. Researchers from The Chinese University of Hong Kong, the University of Sydney, Australia, and other institutions published a paper in the medical journal JAMA Cardiology about using facial-scanning technologies and neural networks—software that learns—to detect the heart condition atrial fibrillation in patients. “To our knowledge, this is the first study to demonstrate detection of AF with high accuracy from multiple patients concurrently with a single camera,” the researchers wrote.

FORTUNE ON A.I.

Want a SIM Card in China? You’ll Now Need to Get Your Faced Scanned First—By Grady McGregor

What Makes People Love Waze More Than Google Maps and Apple Maps? Its Army of Unpaid Human Editors—By Alyssa Newcomb

China Once Welcomed the World’s Trash. Now It’s Using A.I. and Facial Recognition to Handle Mountains of Its Own—By Grady McGregor

BRAIN FOOD

About China’s big A.I. spendingThe Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University published an analysis of how much money the Chinese government is spending on artificial intelligence research. The authors said that China likely spent “a few billion dollars” on A.I.-related research initiatives as opposed to the “tens of billions of dollars” that other groups have suggested. “While we did not analyze U.S. AI R&D spending in any depth for this paper, our results indicate that China’s spending in 2018 was on the same order of magnitude as U.S. planned spending for FY 2020, as documented elsewhere,” the authors wrote.

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