AI and robots threaten to unleash mass unemployment, scientists warn

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 error-prone people. 

“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 will disappear”. 

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.”

Letter in response to this report:

Artificial intelligence is good news . . . isn’t it? / From David Fisk

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