In case we haven’t been cautioned enough about the threats of emerging artificial intelligence, a panel of academics addressed the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on Sunday with a warning that advancements in intelligent and semi-intelligent automation could lead to overwhelming unemployment across many industries.

Machines’ ability to recognize patterns is yet to match our own, but their increasing sophistication in regards to tasks like speech recognition and data analysis has seen AI applied to real world applications such as autonomous driving. In this vain Bart Selman, professor of computer science at Cornell University, said, “For the first time, we’re going to see these machines and systems as part of our everyday life.”

The predicted success of self-driving cars may prove to be a blessing that greatly reduces car accidents, but – with 10% of U.S. jobs requiring some degree of vehicle operation – the technology will also undoubtedly effect the labor market. Moshe Vardi, professor of computer science and director of the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology at Rice University, told AAAS, “We can expect the majority of these jobs will simply disappear.” He went on to suggest that the disconnect between the manufacturing industry and job growth is a result of automation. Though manufacturing volume is right now at its peak, U.S. manufacturing jobs are currently below the figures from the 1950s. He pointed to the 250,000 industrial robots in the U.S. and the increasing growth rate of their use.

What Vardi suggests will happen is “job polarization”, a phenomenon that emerges when high-skilled jobs demand complex human intelligence and low-skilled jobs are too expensive to automate. Thus, the middle ground jobs will be the easiest to automate, leading to greater economic inequality. Vardi also noted that although this issue is widely regarded as a threat that could make a huge impact on American economic life, there is no discussion of it in politics, particularly not in the presidential election. “We need to start thinking very seriously: What will humans do when machines can do almost everything?” he said. “We have to redefine the meaning of good life without work.”

Furthermore, Wendell Wallach, an ethicist at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics and the Hastings Center, said  “There’s a need for concerted actions to keep technology a good servant and not let it become a dangerous matter.” He also proposed that 10% of AI research funding should be put towards studying the impact that AI machines will have on society, echoing Vardi’s concern that politics has failed to address the tremendous issue. “We need strong, meaningful human control,” he said.

More than a billion dollars was spent on AI research last year. That’s more than has been spent in the fields entire history. That may not match investment in the auto industry or other tech sectors, but it illustrates the increasing role that AI will play in our everyday life and economy. 

Image credit: Joost Swarte