Will a Bad Robot take my job?

One of the big topics at the Word Economic Forum at Davos last week was a report called the Future of Jobs. Depending on who you read 47% of all jobs in the U.S are at risk of computerisation.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is interacting with other socio-economic and demographic factors to create a perfect storm of business model change in all industries, resulting in major disruptions to labour markets. New categories of jobs will emerge, partly or wholly displacing others. The skill sets required in both old and new occupations will change in most industries and transform how and where people work.”

The reports are quite blunt like this one The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond

“Technology is therefore one of the main reasons why incomes have stagnated, or even decreased, for a majority of the population in high-income countries: the demand for highly skilled workers has increased while the demand for workers with less education and lower skills has decreased. The result is a job market with a strong demand at the high and low ends, but a hollowing out of the middle.”

Previously I have written on some of these topics What will become of jobs in the future and Progress Paradox debate as well as on the economic impacts of changes to jobs and equity in The Continuing Collapse of the Middle Class.

None of us needs to be a rocket scientist to spot the long running trends that are reshaping what we know of as work or jobs.

The graphic at the top of this post is from a regional profile of Australia. New Zealand was not included in the main study and so Australia is our closest neighbour with similar issues and concerns driving change in the job markets.

Along with the anxiety about future jobs there is a related one along the lines of Will a Robot Take my Job and variations of that including “Bad Robot” or bad AI scenarios.

Not surprisingly there are a fair number of media stories about this. Here are a few
Science & Tech: The future of jobs By Dr Michelle Dickinson
Takes a positive scan and suggests re-skilling is the answer.

“Other online courses and community centre programs which teach coding and robotics can also give a basic introduction into the skills needed for the changing workplace. New Zealand has always been a country of smart innovators, making us the perfect incubator for new technology to grow, so if robots are going to take people’s jobs then wouldn’t it be great if they were made in New Zealand?”

Most of us can easily understand simple automation like self checkouts at the supermarket or ticketing machines at the airport but increasingly it will be some form of artificial intelligence or robot that will be used for customers service and other tasks. Japan is the place to watch those trends emerge.

For example Japan’s robots move into new jobs – By Kashiko Kawanaka, Yu Komagata Republished from the Washington Post

“Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings is one company eyeing the use of humanoid robots, and has begun studying how to introduce information clerk robots at its department stores. As an initial step, it plans to have robots handle reception services and inquiries at stores in central Tokyo in a few years.

Isetan Mitsukoshi’s future vision calls for the robots to take orders, fetch goods and talk with customers.”

Resisting the robots name checks Nick Bostrom, Ray Kurzweil and Max Tegmark on their concerns and insights about possible AI scenarios.

“New technologies – including genetic engineering and nanotechnology – are cascading upon one another and converging.

We don’t know how this will play out. But some of the most serious thinkers on Earth worry about potential hazards – and wonder whether we remain fully in control of our inventions.”

For a better idea of what Bostrum is concerned about we can watch this TED video Nick Bostrom: What happens when our computers get smarter than we are?


Today, the action is really around machine learning. So rather than handcrafting knowledge representations and features, we create algorithms that learn, often from raw perceptual data. Basically the same thing that the human infant does. The result is A.I. that is not limited to one domain — the same system can learn to translate between any pairs of languages, or learn to play any computer game on the Atari console. Now of course, A.I. is still nowhere near having the same powerful, cross-domain ability to learn and plan as a human being has. The cortex still has some algorithmic tricks that we don’t yet know how to match in machines.

In the talk Bostrom speculates on when we will reach “human-level machine intelligence” which is the next step up from computer storage to machine learning and beyond. He also references the Midas story – be careful what you wish for.

“the general point here is important: if you create a really powerful optimization process to maximize for objective x, you better make sure that your definition of x incorporates everything you care about.”… The values that the A.I. has need to match ours, not just in the familiar context, like where we can easily check how the A.I. behaves, but also in all novel contexts that the A.I. might encounter in the indefinite future.”

It is this question of values and virtue that I find myself focussing on now. In my view it is not enough to simple solve a problem. That problem solving needs to be done in a way that “human friendly” and human life affirming.

As Bostrum notes we need to work on the human side of the equation before our AI reaches the point of Super machine intelligence. There are already a number of people working on a Team Human response.THE RESISTANCE tells the story of some techno skeptics and their unease at the current trends of developing technology.

“Machines are not an end unto themselves. Remember the humans.”

I don’t think we have reached that point yet. However anyone who has read the famous novel ‘1984’ has probably wondered how a high surveillance totalitarian state could develop. A short answer is many of us surveil ourselves through constantly life-streaming and updating our social media channels. I remember an Onion satire on that point to the effect that Facebook was invented for the ‘intelligence’ community. (Oxymoron alert on the word intelligence there.)

A few months ago another essay popped across my desk How To Be More Valuable Than Machines.pdf written by Geoff Colvin. Click above to view that pdf as a slideshow.

It sets out to answer the question “A few years from now, what will you do better than a computer?”

The answer that Michelle posed in the first linked story -up-skilling and retraining

“we’re entering an era in which the skills that make you valuable are not only changing—they comprise a fundamentally different kind of skills from those that have made people economically valuable up to now.”….
The evidence is clear that the most effective groups are those whose members most strongly possess the most essentially, deeply human abilities—empathy above all, social sensitivity, storytelling, collaborating, solving problems together, building relationships. We developed these abilities of interaction with other people, not machines, not even emotion-sensing, emotionexpressing machines…..
the meaning of great performance has changed. It used to be that you had to be good at being machine-like. Now, increasingly, you have to be good at being a person. Great performance requires us to be intensely human beings.…..
To put it another way: Being a great performer is becoming less about what you know and more about what you’re like.
The emerging picture of the future casts conventional career advice in a new light, especially the non-stop urging that students study coding and STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, math. It has been excellent advice for quite a while; eight of the ten highest-paying college majors are in engineering, and those skills will remain critically important. But important isn’t the same as high-value or well-paid. As InfoTech continues its advance into higher skills, value will continue to move elsewhere. Engineers will stay in demand, it’s safe to say, but tomorrow’s most valuable engineers will not be geniuses in cubicles; rather they’ll be those who can build relationships, brainstorm, collaborate, and lead.

It seems like the more technology is introduced the better we need to be as humans to take care of one another and hopefully that includes inventing new jobs and more creative ways to work.