MY LIGHT BULB MOMENT came in 2011 when an IBM programme called Watson beat two champions to win Jeopardy. Until then we thought we were playing games and having fun. Technology was starting to change our lives in very dramatic ways.
2012 WAS THE CENTENARY OF ALAN TURING’S BIRTH and I was asked to write an article about his legacy for Atlantic. I chose to discuss a paper in which he proposed the imitation game, now known as the Turing test – and the impact on jobs. The article got 50,000 hits online in three months. After 40 years of research, I only had 40,000 citations. It confirmed that there is tremendous societal interest in the topic.
I HAVE BECOME A BIT OF AN EVANGELIST about artificial intelligence, which is controversial because classical economics dismisses the problem. Classical economists love equilibrium. Prices go up, demand goes down. Prices go down, demand goes up. What they don’t factor in is how long it can take. People are slow to change and adaptation has proved painful so far. Even if you say “don’t worry, in 50 years’ time it will work itself out”, for most people that is too long.
MILLIONS OF JOBS HAVE BEEN LOST in manufacturing due to automation. For a while the debate was between automation or globalisation. Politicians focused on globalisation because it’s easier to blame people than something like automation. Even easier if you blame people who look different to you.
WHY DIDN’T BLUE COLLAR WORKERS FIND NEW JOBS? If you’re a truck driver and you lose your job to driverless cars, you’re not going to have the skill to write software for autonomous cars, which is where the jobs are. So your options are find another job at your skill level – the ones disappearing – or downskill, but that brings a significant loss of income and affects the wider community.