Predictions about how many jobs will be lost due to the rise of robotics and artificial intelligence are all over the place. In March, a PriceWaterhouseCoopers study found that automation could eat away as much as 38 percent of U.S. jobs. A report by Forrester in April 2017 said automation will lead to a net loss of 9.8 million U.S. jobs by 2027. In 2013, a study by Oxford University predicted that 69 million jobs would be lost.
But many researchers and economists agree on one thing: that historical precedents and patterns of how the world's economies react to technological change may no longer apply.
Economist James Bessen, a lecturer at Boston University School of Law, says historically, technological advancements ushered in changes in how humans work, but eventually the technology creates more new jobs than those that were lost. Bessen, in a discussion on C-Span, said that his research only found a handful of jobs that have been completely automated to oblivion, one of which is the elevator operator. Other jobs, like telegraph operator, bite the dust because of technological obsolescence. Banks, he says, currently employ more tellers than were employed before the ATM. But, he believes the forces of automation, in two decades, will shift the economy so profoundly that historical norms may not hold up as robots and artificial intelligence spread throughout industries.
"In the past, very rarely did technology fully-automate jobs; technology historically has augmented jobs or changed an employee's tasks," Besser says. "But after the next 20 years, we are talking about job dislocation due to technology. With AI in particular, the scope and pace of changes are going to be more severe."
Besser says he sees a future where workers from all types of industries are going to need to transition and learn new skills. But, he says, many of the people who get replaced will not be the ones who get the new types of jobs.
Diane Bailey, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin who's teaching a course about artificial intelligence and work, warns that we will see a "fundamental shift in the economy" because of robotics and AI.
"We need to start planning," says Bailey. She is worried that many people will not be able to get trained for new jobs as AI disrupts workers.
According to MIT professors Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, in their co-authored book the Second Machine Age, AI will advance across industries at roughly the same time and speed. This means there will be nowhere to jump to avoid job dislocation.
"Not everyone is going to be able to attain higher education, higher skills," says Bailey.
Another concern is more social and cultural. Work provides stability and humans gain a strong part of our identity from work, Bailey says. What's going to happen if we have nothing to do? Robotics and artificial intelligence companies say they support a universal basic income to help support people who are replaced by robots, but Bailey says work is important for a human's self worth.
Bailey says predicting the future is impossible, but planning for unprecedented technological evolution and coming up with a strategy at how to deal with the potential changes in the fabric of our society is possible. But, she says we need to start having conversations about what type of future we want.
She says that technology itself does not determine outcomes, people do. Bailey says that workers from all types of industries, social workers, anthropologists, government representatives, and business owners should all have a say about how technology should and should not be used.
The question Bailey is most concerned about is who is making these decisions about which jobs should be automated and which should not for the majority of workers.
"It's fundamentally wrong that the people who are choosing our future are CEOs, managers, and corporations," she says. "We need policies and laws to protect jobs, or else it'll be a free for all."
Elon Musk, and many other leaders in AI and robotics, agree that we need laws and regulations before it's too late. Musk says we should make a law banning robot soldiers.
"Why would we choose not to have robot soldiers? Because we value human life," Bailey says. "But do we value work-life? Bailey says if we value the ability of people to earn a living and support their families, we should be aware that there is the potential for massive layoffs and a shift in the economy that could create greater levels of inequality if we don't first think about the future. "If we do value people's ability to work we need to start making choices."