Emerging Technologies

If AI is the future, what does it mean for you?

Honda's latest version of the Asimo humanoid robot runs during a presentation in Zaventem near Brussels July 16, 2014. Honda introduced in Belgium an improved version of its Asimo humanoid robot that it says has enhanced intelligence and hand dexterity, and is able to run at a speed of some 9 kilometres per hour (5.6 miles per hour).  REUTERS/Francois Lenoir (BELGIUM - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS SOCIETY) - RTR3YVQI

AI and digital transformation are phasing out traditional jobs. Image: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Luciano Floridi
Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information, University of Oxford
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Technological Transformation

Galileo viewed nature as a book written in the language of mathematics and decipherable through physics. His metaphor may have been a stretch for his milieu, but not for ours. Ours is a world of digits that must be read through computer science.

It is a world in which artificial-intelligence (AI) applications perform many tasks better than we can. Like fish in water, digital technologies are our infosphere’s true natives, while we analog organisms try to adapt to a new habitat, one that has come to include a mix of analog and digital components.

We are sharing the infosphere with artificial agents that are increasingly smart, autonomous, and even social. Some of these agents are already right in front of us, and others are discernible on the horizon, while later generations are unforeseeable. And the most profound implication of this epochal change may be that we are most likely only at the beginning of it.

The AI agents that have already arrived come in soft forms, such as apps, web bots, algorithms, and software of all kinds; and hard forms, such as robots, driverless cars, smart watches, and other gadgets. They are replacing even white-collar workers, and performing functions that, just a few years ago, were considered off-limits for technological disruption: cataloguing images, translating documents, interpreting radiographs, flying drones, extracting new information from huge data sets, and so forth.

Digital technologies and automation have been replacing workers in agriculture and manufacturing for decades; now they are coming to the services sector. More old jobs will continue to disappear, and while we can only guess at the scale of the coming disruption, we should assume that it will be profound. Any job in which people serve as an interface – between, say, a GPS and a car, documents in different languages, ingredients and a finished dish, or symptoms and a corresponding disease – is now at risk.

 AI Funding History
Image: CB Insights

But, at the same time, new jobs will appear, because we will need new interfaces between automated services, websites, AI applications, and so forth. Someone will need to ensure that the AI service’s translations are accurate and reliable.

What’s more, many tasks will not be cost-effective for AI applications. For example, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program claims to give its customers “access to more than 500,000 workers from 190 countries,” and is marketed as a form of “artificial artificial intelligence.” But as the repetition indicates, the human “Turks” are performing brainless tasks, and being paid pennies.

These workers are in no position to turn down a job. The risk is that AI will only continue to polarize our societies – between haves and never-will-haves – if we do not manage its effects. It is not hard to imagine a future social hierarchy that places a few patricians above both the machines and a massive new underclass of plebs. Meanwhile, as jobs go, so will tax revenues; and it is unlikely that the companies profiting from AI will willingly step in to support adequate social-welfare programs for their former employees.

Instead, we will have to do something to make companies pay more, perhaps with a “robo-tax” on AI applications. We should also consider legislation and regulations to keep certain jobs “human.” Indeed, such measures are also why driverless trains are still rare, despite being more manageable than driverless taxis or buses.

Still, not all of AI’s implications for the future are so obvious. Some old jobs will survive, even when a machine is doing most of the work: a gardener who delegates cutting the grass to a “smart” lawnmower will simply have more time to focus on other things, such as landscape design. At the same time, other tasks will be delegated back to us to perform (for free) as users, such as in the self-checkout lane at the supermarket.

Another source of uncertainty concerns the point at which AI is no longer controlled by a guild of technicians and managers. What will happen when AI becomes “democratized” and is available to billions of people on their smartphones or some other device?

What’s more, many tasks will not be cost-effective for AI applications. For example, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program claims to give its customers “access to more than 500,000 workers from 190 countries,” and is marketed as a form of “artificial artificial intelligence.” But as the repetition indicates, the human “Turks” are performing brainless tasks, and being paid pennies.

These workers are in no position to turn down a job. The risk is that AI will only continue to polarize our societies – between haves and never-will-haves – if we do not manage its effects. It is not hard to imagine a future social hierarchy that places a few patricians above both the machines and a massive new underclass of plebs. Meanwhile, as jobs go, so will tax revenues; and it is unlikely that the companies profiting from AI will willingly step in to support adequate social-welfare programs for their former employees.

Instead, we will have to do something to make companies pay more, perhaps with a “robo-tax” on AI applications. We should also consider legislation and regulations to keep certain jobs “human.” Indeed, such measures are also why driverless trains are still rare, despite being more manageable than driverless taxis or buses.

Still, not all of AI’s implications for the future are so obvious. Some old jobs will survive, even when a machine is doing most of the work: a gardener who delegates cutting the grass to a “smart” lawnmower will simply have more time to focus on other things, such as landscape design. At the same time, other tasks will be delegated back to us to perform (for free) as users, such as in the self-checkout lane at the supermarket.

Another source of uncertainty concerns the point at which AI is no longer controlled by a guild of technicians and managers. What will happen when AI becomes “democratized” and is available to billions of people on their smartphones or some other device?

All of these profound transformations oblige us to reflect seriously on who we are, could be, and would like to become. AI will challenge the exalted status we have conferred on our species. While I do not think that we are wrong to consider ourselves exceptional, I suspect that AI will help us identify the irreproducible, strictly human elements of our existence, and make us realize that we are exceptional only insofar as we are successfully dysfunctional.

In the great software of the universe, we will remain a beautiful bug, and AI will increasingly become a normal feature.

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