Sunday, May 18, 2014

This is a blog post I wrote about our seminar speaker at IFFS on Friday May 16, mainly for David Sumpter's blog and the IFFS website, but it won't do any harm to post it here as well. I and the speaker, Michael Osborne, did our PhDs together, and now he's one of Oxford's foremost experts on Machine Learning. In this presentation he described how Machine Learning will change everyone's employment in the coming century...

The future of automation

Depending on your perspective, technological development has been saving us from drudgery, or destroying our livelihoods, for centuries. From the very first domestication of animals we’ve been finding ways to perform tasks with less human action since civilisation began.

Last week Dr. Michael Osborne from the University of Oxford gave a presentation at the Institute for Futures Studies showing his predictions about which of us will be losing our jobs in the century to come. Michael, as an expert in Machine Learning, is interested in which jobs will be automated as a result of increasing artificial intelligence in the Big Data era. He and his colleagues have been impressed at the rapid pace with which tasks that were seen as impossible for computers to perform, such as driving a car or translating accurately between different languages have become almost routine.

Machine Learning itself can be used to predict which tasks are ripe for automation. First they gathered data on the skills necessary to perform over 700 different jobs, such as social sensitivity, manual dexterity and creativity. A panel of experts was then asked to predict which of 70 specific jobs would be automatable in the near future. Using Gaussian process regression, Michael and his colleagues learned a relationship between the skills a job requires and the probability that a computer will be able to perform, and extrapolated this relationship to the 700 jobs the panel had not evaluated. Their results give us a view on which sectors of the economy will be most affected by the continued rise of artificial intelligence. The graph below shows, by sector, what proportion of jobs are at low, medium or high risk of being automated. In general, those jobs requiring the most necessary social interactions and/or high level creativity appear to be safest from the coming tide of job losses, but none of us can rest too easy!

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However, we shouldn’t be too distressed at this imminent redundancy. As Michael pointed out for example, while technological progress has reduced the workforce in agriculture from almost 40% of employment in 1900 to around 2% today, the total unemployment rate has barely changed. Technology has allowed society to move human labour to more productive areas. The results of Michael’s analysis also show that it is generally lower paid, lower skilled jobs that will be destroyed, giving hope that people will be able to move into better employment, if society provides them with the necessary skills.

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Nonetheless, Michael also showed examples of resistance to change, such as the guilds of Tudor England blocking the development of machines for making textiles in fear of their members livelihoods. The ever increasing rate of automation, and the subsequent need for people to continually adapt to new careers and find new skills presents society with a powerful challenge, that may require new social contracts, such as a guaranteed citizen’s income and much more investment in public education to solve. It will be exciting to see where this process takes us!

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