AI and robots threaten to unleash mass unemployment, scientists warn
Clive Cookson in Washington
SCIENTISTS HAVE warned that rapid strides in the development of
artificial intelligence and robotics threatens the prospect of mass
unemployment, affecting everyone from drivers to sex workers.
Intelligent machines will soon replace human workers in all sectors of
the economy, senior computer scientists told the American Association
for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington at the weekend.
“We are approaching the time when machines will be able to outperform
humans at almost any task,” said Moshe Vardi, computer science professor
at Rice University in Texas. “Society needs to confront this question
before it is upon us: if machines are capable of doing almost any work
humans can do, what will humans do?
“A typical answer is that we will be free to pursue leisure activities,”
Prof Vardi said. “[But] I do not find the prospect of leisure-only life
appealing. I believe that work is essential to human wellbeing.”
“AI is moving rapidly from academic research into the real world,” said
Bart Selman, professor of computer science at Cornell University.
“Computers are starting to ‘hear’ and ‘see’ as humans do . . . Systems
can start to move and operate among us autonomously.” He said companies
such as Google, Facebook, IBM and Microsoft were scaling up investments
in AI systems to billions of dollars a year.
Professors Vardi and Selman said governments — and society as a whole —
were not facing up to the acceleration of AI and robotics research. Prof
Selman helped draft an open letter issued last year by the Future of
Life Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, urging policymakers to
explore the risks associated with increasingly intelligent machines.
Among the 10,000 or so signatories to the letter is Elon Musk, the tech
entrepreneur whose company Tesla Motors has a large AI research
programme aimed at developing self-driving cars.
Mr Musk will fund research at Cornell University “on keeping AI
beneficial to humans”, said Prof Selman. The project will predict
whether and, if so when, “super-intelligence” — all-round superiority of
machine to human intelligence — might be achieved.
According to Prof Selman, one of the fastest advancing areas of AI is
machine vision, and particularly facial recognition. “Facebook can
recognise faces better than any of us,” he said. Machine vision is key
to the self-driving vehicles that scientists predict will take over our
roads in the next 25 years. Prof Vardi said automated driving would cut
accidents by 90 per cent or more, compared with vehicles driven by
“With so many lives saved and injuries prevented, it would be hard
morally for anyone to argue against it,” he said. Yet around 10 per cent
of all US jobs involve driving a vehicle, he added, “and most of those
Prof Vardi said it would be hard to think of any jobs that would not be
vulnerable to robotics and AI — even sex workers. “Are you going to bet
against sex robots?” he asked. “I’m not.”