Automation and AI: Forecasts are nonsense, read Science-Fiction instead

In the midst of the discussions around Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation, people begin to speculate how the jobs of the future will be like — and if there is still a reason for them to exist. AI with its Machine and Deep Learning algorithms constantly aim at automating everything that’s in their way, spreading fear and confusion in nearly every industry. But are these fears justified?

A robot
Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

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The uncertainty about the future is amplified by the numerous predictions of it, often conflicting in their polemic. The narrative in the mass media, however, isn’t new. There is always someone who wants to sell something — a book, a product, a piece of software. And the “visionary” reports are no different, clickbaiting us by using curiosity (“Learn these 10 skills that will keep you ahead of automation”), urgency (“Learn them now, or get automated”), and more often than not, pessimism shuffled with helplessness (“You will lose your job to a robot, so stop trying anyway”). And my favorite, with a touch of humor: “Stop worrying about automation, your job is bullshit anyway”.

Getting the Future Wrong

The MIT Technology Review keeps an eye on the reports that warn about the massive job losses, or gains, in the future because of AI and automation. In the table below, you will notice that the numbers almost never match. They are not even close enough. Take for example the predicted job loss in the U.S. by 2025. Forrester estimates a loss of 24 million jobs, whereas ScienceAlert only 3.4 million — seven times less.

Table representing various future of job losses or gains due to artificial intelligence or automation.
Fuzzy predictions of the future (Source)

Even some economists aren’t sure about models used to predict the future. Ariel Rubinstein, an eminent Israeli economist, writes in his book Economic Fables (2012):

“I am obsessively occupied with denying any interpretation contending that economic models produce conclusions of real value.”

What he tries to say is that economic models and the forecasts they produce are applesauce and bananas. 

Rubinstein’s words seem slightly harsher than the words of a renowned British statistician, George Box, who once said:

“All models are wrong, but some are useful”

Fact is, no one can look into the future. No one can know and analyze data from the future. Predictions are based on simplifications of the existing, complex world. Trends can and should be identified, but it’s the author’s duty to inform the public about its limitations and avoid spreading rumors. 

But let’s leave applesauce and bananas behind us and get to the exciting part now.

Science-Fiction Literature Forms the Future

The world shaped by artificial intelligence seems dystopian. After all, the greatest minds of our time share the same fear that one day Homo Roboticus enslaves the Homo Sapiens (“The Wise Man” won’t be that wise anymore, huh?) and the world will end as we know it. Well, only Zuckerberg thinks they’re dumb and would love to see more of it. He’s just too busy now explaining to the US Congress what this site, Facebook, is all about. 

They’re coming for us

It’s easier to imagine old jobs disappearing than new jobs rising that haven’t been there before. But to have a full, untwisted picture of what could be created, we must do some hard thinking.

A large number of experts, tech-bros and other computer geeks prefer to take the easy path. They buy a science-fiction book and read it. And when they read it, they think (hard) what to do with the wisdom they’ve acquired. You may ask, what’s so valuable in these books that are worth their time? You would be amazed, how many of the technological inventions were — almost prophetically — portrayed in the sci-fi literature long before they became reality. It seems that the literature sparked the imagination of the technology creators who then realized the — at the moment of writing still fictional — vision.

One such book is Snow Crash (1992), written by Neal Stephenson. This book found its special place on the tech’s community bookshelves. Even at the Zuck’s Facebook spin-off, Oculus, a virtual-reality company, every new-joiner gets a copy to read and to get inspired. Stephenson and his predictions of mobile computing, virtual reality, wireless Internet, and many other technical novelties were so accurate that they earned him the noble title of Tech Nostradamus.

Snow Crash - Book from Neal Stephenson about the future
Is this the Almanac we were looking for?

Later, he admitted “making shit up”, but the story of Hiro Protagonist – the pizza delivery guy by day, warrior-prince by night – and his fight against the Infocalypse caught the attention of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (who, like Elon, also started recently shooting rockets into space) and they plan a TV series now. And Stephenson got him a nice job title, too. He is now the Chief Futurist at a virtual reality startup.

Even the datenkraken Google, Apple, Microsoft have recognized the value of science-fiction and hire now writers to lead design fiction workshops — a place for prototyping the future.

“The future is a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas (…), ” says the novelist and poet Ursula K. Le Guin. So let’s just hope that the mental experiment in her novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) about genetically modified hermaphrodites — a genderless society — never comes true.

So far, the science-fiction genre has failed me only once — flying cars. I still don’t see the sky full of flying cars.

Don’t Forget About the Past

“What’s past is prologue,” writes Shakespeare in his play The Tempest. It sets the scene for stories that are yet to come. The past helps to understand today’s and future technological advancements, and the way mankind copes with them. These advancements are the “butterfly effect” of the little perturbations, the “flapping of the wings”, that started centuries ago.

Even if the past has passed, digging in it is easy and insightful. Although, one has to uncover the “real facts” and dismiss the alternative ones — the fake news of the past. History gives us also the perspective. And perspective is the futurist’s currency.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the Industrial Revolution. Today, historians define it as a tipping point in the history of humankind and a breeding ground for the next ones that arrived. The Revolution had a tremendous impact on the technological, socioeconomic, and cultural areas of life. And since the industrial age, people lived in fear of technological changes. Even if the predictions of mass unemployment have never really realized, the adjustment to the new reality was painful  – it took nearly 200 years, two more Revolutions (the 2nd and 3rd), two World Wars and a staggering inequality to settle in.

Relax and Enjoy the View

The conclusion is that there is no conclusion — we have absolutely no idea how many jobs will be lost to robots and their artificial intelligence. And I believe — not predict — that in the long run, we’re going to be just fine. The words of the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Robert Schiller relax me even more:

“[Automation] could be a 23rd-century problem”

And in 200 years we’ll be history. 

The one thing you can do today to prepare for the future is to buy a good science-fiction book, put your feet up, and enjoy the view:

A vista point overlooking the sea. This would be nice future for me to have.
Where was this photo taken? Someone?

I don’t have any particular specialist skills. I have a sort of vague knowledge of many areas.