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The Age of Automation

Imagine this...you are in a hospital room, about to go into surgery, but you’re not worried, not even a little bit. You know that your doctor doesn’t make mistakes, emotion doesn’t get in her way, and over hundreds of surgeries she’s never lost a patient. This is because your doctor is not a she, nor a he either. Your doctor is a robot; a sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) that is more knowledgeable and precise than any doctor that’s ever lived. Sounds like science fiction? Well, 50 years from now it is expected that AI’s like the one described will not only exist, but also be the main reliable source for treatment and diagnosis.This is of course a positive outcome of AI on society, but many think the automation of labour is more likely to create quite a dystopian future. 

According to a paper by Oxford University, over the next few decades we are going to witness a dramatic increase in the automation of labour, with full automation by 2140. Within the next 25 years it is expected that AI’s will be able to translate language better than humans, self-drive a truck, create a top 40 pop song, and be able to replace your average retail salesperson. The numbers are really alarming considering the number of jobs that could potentially be lost within the next decade. The world is already dealing with an ever-increasing disparity between the rich and poor, and the automation of labour will only add to this divide - the risk being that jobs lost will be greater than jobs created. This has caused some experts such as Elon Musk (Tesla), to stress the necessity for a Universal Base Income (UBI) to mitigate the effects of unemployment. However, this is slightly alarming considering it’s the only current solution against automation, and it is not guaranteed to solve the problem. Especially if the western world maintains capitalism as its main economic and political system. 

Nonetheless, the automation of jobs has already started. According to the Business Insider Australia, three of the world’s largest corporations – Foxconn, Walmart, and the US Department of Defence – have already replaced tens of thousands of jobs with robots in one way or another. Many entry level jobs, particularly in fields that are largely analytic, and do not require a large degree of creativity, will be replaced by AI. This in itself will create an issue. Many fields will have humans dealing with expert advice and AI will be doing the heavy lifting that is normally delegated to lower level employees. Hence, we’re going to run out of expert advice as there will be a decline in the number of new people entering the workforce. 

The future is not all grim though. Jobs that require a large degree of creativity – considered to be one of the hardest things to achieve by an AI – will survive at least the early onset of the automated age. There is also the possibility that automation will only add to our productivity as AI's will work 'beside' us, as opposed to replace us. Imagine only having to work a 4-hour day…wouldn’t that be nice?! Xero has already taken this approach and is trying to implement AI into their software, not to "replace humans, but rather to enhance their work.”

So, what does this mean for New Zealand? What implications will the automation of labour have on our workforce and way of life? Richard MacManus, a Kiwi author and tech columnist, suggests New Zealand could be better off than most. A UBI could be easier to implement here than other countries and our mentality as kiwis, and the way we invite change, could aid us in the transition. Regardless of profession, this is a change that is going to affect all of us. One only has to look at the likes of the Internet and Social Media, to get an idea of what’s to come.

Click here to see Richard’s full article on How New Zealand can thrive in the age of AI .

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