Age of artificial intelligence: A looming mass unemployment crisis?

Age of artificial intelligence: A looming mass unemployment crisis?

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Artificial intelligence (AI) may be very nascent, but unlike many technological innovations its use cases are becoming widespread to the point it is seen as having a vital role in the quality of life people live daily.

In a 2017 article for the World Economic Forum, Brandie Nonnecke noted that AI has become so ubiquitous that it has entered into hospitals, courthouses, and employment offices, deciding who gets insurance, who receives parole, and who gets hired.

While countries like Nigeria has certainly not witnessed this level of AI utility yet, examples abound in areas like payment and access to credit. Tech firms like Branch International and kudi.co are all experimenting with AI integration at different levels.

In no distant time, many have predicted AI integration will come to have far reaching ramifications for growth of unemployment. Nigeria has one of the highest unemployment rates in Africa. According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) the total number of people classified as unemployed, which means they did nothing at all or worked too few hours (under 20 hours a week) to be classified as employed rose from 17.6 million in the fourth quarter of 2017 to 20.9 million in the third quarter of 2018.

“We are at the brink of a technological revolution that promises not just to fundamentally alter the structure of our economy,” said Carl Benedikt Frey, an Oxford Martin Fellow at Oxford University, “but also to reshape the social fabric more broadly.”

Frey is one of the authors of the ‘Technology at Work v4.0: Navigating the Future of Work’ report commissioned by the Citi Bank Group. The report draws some parallels between the Age of artificial intelligence and historical developments such as the Industrial Revolutions, Age of Enlightenment.

Despite how pervasive AI is projected to become, like the Industrial Revolution, it may not have an immediate impact on production level. Gains from mechanization as a result of Industrial Revolution only became evident some seven decades after. Frey says this is already being witnessed in the 21st century world. Driverless cars for instance, went on as exhibition as early as 2004 when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held its ‘grand challenge’, but it wasn’t until 2016 would the world’s first driverless taxis pick up passengers in Singapore. Three years afterwards, regulators have yet to warm up to the concept of driverless cars on major streets.

That notwithstanding, many jobs are still at risk of automation. It would not however happen at giddy and lightening pace often predicted. It will be at a gradual rate. The reason is because artificial intelligence is still at infancy level. Frey argues that in the early stages of development new technologies are likely to reduce productivity growth.

“The pace of innovation is arguably accelerating. But even if that is true, innovation is not what drives productivity growth,” Frey said. “For productivity to grow technological innovations must find widespread use.”

The workers that are less likely to be replaced are those in jobs that require at least a college degree and consist of tasks centred on complex social interactions and creative skills. There is an extent to which machines can communicate intelligently like a person would. Even if algorithms outperform humans in basic text communication, Frey notes, many jobs centre on more subtle in-person communication, which is way beyond the capability of AI today.

 



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