Automate This! The future of work in an artificially intelligent world
By Annie Bender
Robots in the operating room. Algorithms that act like personal DJs. Trucks that drive themselves.
Artificial intelligence may still be in its early stages, but it's already radically reshaping our relationship with technology.
It's also forcing many workers to re-evaluate their career prospects.
From Hollywood to the surgical suite, machine learning technology is now poised to disrupt sectors that seemed safe from automation just a few years ago.
By some estimates, machines are already capable of carrying out nearly half the tasks Canadians currently do at their jobs.
There's an algorithm for that
When he first saw the numbers in 2013, Michael Osborne was skeptical.
Osborne, a machine learning researcher, was sifting through the findings of an algorithm he'd built to predict which U.S. jobs were most susceptible to automation.
Telemarketing, sports referees and bank tellers — all fields that have already been partially automated — were near the top of the list.
But when the program gave fashion models a 98 per cent chance of being replaced by machines, Osborne's eyebrows shot up.
The more Osborne thought about the findings, however, the more he agreed with them.
"You might naively think that this is a non-automatable occupation," he says. "But if you look at the characteristics of the job, in fact it does seem relatively routine."
Computer programs may not be poised to replace Karlie Kloss on the runway, but Osborne believes many simpler modeling gigs — like posing for digital photography — are ripe for automation.
"In the not-too-distant future, we might be able to use computer-generated models for at least some purposes — for the purposes of advertising, for instance," he says.
The rapid advance of machine learning technology in recent years is putting an increasing number of white collar jobs in the path of automation. Osborne's algorithm indicates a full 47 per cent of U.S. jobs could be at risk.
And he believes political systems are beginning to feel the effects.
In one study, Americans who lived in regions with a high risk of automation were more likely to vote for Donald Trump in the U.S. Presidential election.
As automation displaces more workers, it could spark global political unrest.
"As technologies are pushed even into those developing nations that are relatively unstable," Osborne says, "more instability may be the predominant result."
When job losses save lives
Krista Jones was terrified when she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in 2011. She had no idea an algorithm would save her life.
"I was heading towards a double mastectomy," she recalls, "mostly out of fear for the fact that nobody could explain why [the tumours] were reoccurring."
After a five-year struggle, her doctors suggested a different treatment plan — one developed using algorithms and big data, the precursors to artificial intelligence.
The treatment left her cancer-free.
"Not only did it save my life, but it left me whole in so many different ways," Jones says.
Jones' story comes as no surprise to physicians like Dr. Peter Kim, a surgeon who is dedicated to advancing the use of artificial intelligence technology in medicine.
Kim is part of the research team behind an autonomous surgical robot called STAR, which he says can already outperform human surgeons at some medical tasks.
STAR is one of many artificially intelligent tools being developed for use in hospitals. A.I.-driven health startups like Toronto's Cloud DX are building algorithms that could measure patients' vital signs, among other things.
Kim believes A.I.-enhanced medical tools could reduce the rate of medical complications by eliminating the risk of human error.
"You can imagine in the future, if you happen to need a surgery, you can potentially program the very best surgical techniques and judgments into a machine and have it available for everybody, essentially democratizing medicine," he says.
Kim acknowledges that the robot he's building could eventually overtake his own role as a surgeon. Other medical professionals, like radiologists, have already been affected by automation.
The threat of job losses doesn't concern Kim.
"I welcome the opportunity of having smarter and smarter technologies that can enable me to provide a more consistent, more effective outcome — including smart surgical robots."
Rise of the entertainment droids
Philippe Pasquier is a musician, but you'd never guess it from visiting his studio. There are no electric guitars or drum kits to be seen — only computers.
And the machines haven't simply taken the instruments' place. They also write the songs.
Pasquier, an associate professor at Simon Fraser University, is working to merge artificial intelligence with creative tasks. In other words, he's building computer programs that can make their own art.
His algorithms can already compose music that most people can't differentiate from Chopin and Brahms.
Nick Bilton, a special correspondent with
"I think it's gonna touch everything — from the actors, the musicians, the singers, producers," he says.
Bilton believes mainstream music labels could eventually use A.I. to test thousands of versions of a pop song to determine which is most likely to top the Billboard charts — or even replace actual musicians altogether.
Something similar is already happening on movie sets.
"In the future, the number of people involved [in making a movie] could be in the double digits."
Already, companies like Adobe are developing software that allows users to manipulate audio and video recordings, changing the words that are coming out of an actor's' mouth in real time.
The impact of those technologies will be felt far beyond Hollywood.
"In the next 2018, 2020 elections in the U.S., you're [going to] have not just fake articles, but you're [going to] have fake videos of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump talking that are [going to] be created on computer-generated technologies," Bilton says.
"Once you control that, you can control anything."
- More: How A.I. is taking over the entertainment industry, from pop hits to blockbuster films
- Related: Radiolab's Breaking News
Preparing for the 'useless class'
When the first Industrial Revolution swept Europe, hordes of angry textile workers broke into the factories, smashing the machines that threatened to put them out of work.
The Luddites, as they are now known, were ultimately unable to stop the machinery's rise. But the workers displaced by artificial intelligence may have even less power to fight back.
Even dictatorships relied on millions of people to keep the factories of the 19th and 20th centuries running. But in an age where factories run on algorithms and wars are won in cyberspace, the masses may lose their value.
As Yuval Harari puts it, "it's much more difficult to rebel against irrelevance than against exploitation."
Harari, the author of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, has made a career of studying how past technologies have shaped humankind.
He's concerned that the unchecked advance of A.I. could lead to the rise of what he calls the "useless class."
Workers in sectors like manufacturing and retail are already feeling the impact of automation.
And while A.I. technology may open up new fields of work, there's no guarantee that displaced workers will be able to make the transition — or that there will be enough new jobs to keep them all employed.
"I do think that there will be new jobs for humans," Harari says. "I'm just not convinced there will be enough."
Governments and tech companies may be able to stave off the worst impacts of mass unemployment through some form of universal basic income scheme, Harari says, but to date, he fears the political establishment is largely turning a blind eye to the A.I. revolution.
"If we don't take decisions, the free market will take the decisions on our behalf. And I don't trust the free market to make the best decisions for humankind."