‘RoboCop is coming’: Pratt’s Wadhwa predicts human jobs will be replaced

The Chronicle’s Neelesh Moorthy spoke with Vivek Wadhwa, adjunct professor at the Pratt School of Engineering and director of research at the Duke Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization, to discuss potential job losses in the future as a result of technological change.

The Chronicle: How did you get involved in studying issues of job loss due to technology?

Vivek Wadhwa: Ray Kurzweil [a computer scientist and futurist] and I had some debates about it, because for the longest time I was saying that automation is doing all of this damage, and he was saying we’d figure it out and it would be okay. I debated him and over the last two years I have looked at the trends and the data and my conclusion is that Ray is wrong, that he is being an optimist without justification and that along the way we’re going to have many problems and he’s ignoring them.

TC: Could you state your conclusions and how you got there?

VW: My observation is that we are eliminating many jobs now and we won’t be able to train the workforce, and Ray’s argument is that it’s always been like this and we’ve figured it out before and we’ll figure it out again. Looking at the pace of change, starting with self-driving cars that can now do the jobs of Uber drivers, taxi drivers, and truck drivers, that’s millions of jobs lost over there. What do we do with these people? Many of them are not retrainable for the technology economy and we’re not going to be able to create new jobs for them within five years or so.

The more I look into it, the more I’m convinced that change is happening too fast, disruption is happening too fast, jobs are being wiped out too fast, and the fact that we’re still in denial about it and not acknowledging that this destruction is happening gets me worried. We should instead be talking about how can we minimize its impacts or come up with a safety net or retraining program and create as many new jobs as we can and spread the prosperity. We are not having these discussions.

TC: Is there a date by which the majority of human jobs will be eliminated?

VW: We’re talking about 15 to 20 years, in 2030 or so. We will have mass unemployment. In the meantime, we will see specific sectors like transportation being disrupted, but in 2030 that’s when we see robots basically doing all of the jobs of human beings.

TC: What type of data are you looking at?

VW: I’m just looking at the trends, the different technologies and how fast they’re advancing. Hard data doesn’t exist on this subject. The data says that because we created all of these jobs using technology a hundred years ago it’ll be okay in the future, and I’m saying that just because it happened in the past doesn’t mean it’s going to happen now. Before it was one thing happening over decades, but now it is one thing happening and its happening over years.

TC: How likely are digital doctors?

VW:The technology has not been developed yet. It’s in development right now. For example, IBM Watson is now analyzing cancer data and it can diagnose different types of cancer better than humans can. Already for some types of cancer, AI [Artificial Intelligence] tools have an edge over human beings. In the next five years or so, you’ll see that it becomes mandatory to have AI analyze that type of data because if you don’t and a human makes an error, that person will get sued, so we’ll rely on AI more and more.

I’d rather trust an app over a human being any day. I don’t want to talk to some old guy who makes me feel good. I want the hard data and I want solid analysis. I don’t care about the human touch. Your generation is more into technology than my generation was. Your generation already communicates through technology; you don’t need the face-to-face interaction anymore.

TC: What about generating new knowledge and discovery?

VW: There are massive amounts of information in data right now, sensors everywhere and cameras everywhere, which could do much better investigations than any human beings could because they can crunch massive amounts of data. They could look at every indication of what’s going to happen, historical records, all assimilated and analyze it much better than any human being.

TC: What does this progression look like? What does 2030 look like?

VW: It’s going to be industry by industry. In the 2020s, you are looking at jobs of taxis and drivers and anyone in the transportation industry being eliminated. In the 2030s, the vast majority of knowledge jobs that require intelligence will be eliminated. Politicians are typically good at preserving their jobs, though. In the military we already see robots and killing machines that can do warfare, so I doubt we’re going to see that [human military jobs]. RoboCop is coming. We’ll have AI writing AI, so computer science isn’t even safe, but we need to learn it because for the next 10-20 years it’s a language like reading and writing, and it will be beneficial to have it.

The vast majority of human jobs are done by machines, you have robots serving us. You have AI that is teaching us and guiding us. Just like we use technology to enhance ourselves—we use glasses and prosthetics—we will use new technology as well to enhance us. We will basically start blending in. We are now connected to social media, and we’ll be more connected than ever and meeting people in virtual worlds. We’re heading to the Star Trek type of future.

TC: How could people stop this from happening?

VW: I think in the 15-20 year time frame this technological change is inevitable. Human revolt is also inevitable. Already you have pushback with foreigners taking domestic jobs, these battles brewing. It’s just going to accelerate even more. It’s unstoppable.

TC: What type of safety net were you referring to earlier then?

VW: We need to have a minimum basic income because the cost of everything will be dropping due to abundance, that’s the good news. We will be able to afford all our daily needs, so let’s give everyone the money they need to live good lives.

TC: Why should people go to college right now if they are looking at a jobless future?

VW: Because for the next 10 to 15 years you want to be employed and one of the beneficiaries of the technology change and not a casualty of it. Because there will be jobs for the 10 to 20 years, but the jobs are for the educated and the skilled, the creative and the bright, and you want to be in that category. Eventually, we’ll head into a knowledge economy, which is about enlightenment and teaching culture, music and the arts. I don’t know if that’s a job or what you would call it.

TC: What jobs survive?

VW: We would still care for the elderly, do social service, build new cities. They will be robotocized as well but you still need some humans to work alongside the robots. It’s not black and white. Its not that every job disappears, but the majority, maybe between 50 to 70 percent disappear.