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A Brave New World

We've all heard it now: AI is coming for your job. The threat of job losses as a result of increasing automation and efficiency through the application of machine learning and artificial intelligence is being discussed around water coolers and in human resources departments around the world. These could be scenes from a modern-day episode of Game of Thrones where the motto ‘winter is coming’ was meant as a dire warning of terrible things to come.

There is no doubt that there will be huge disruptions to the workforce and large changes to the landscape of job opportunities that currently exist. But how exactly this will play out in the economy is unknown.

There are some who think that automation will drastically reduce the need for labour in sectors which currently employ the vast majority of people. Smart agriculture promises to increase efficiency and automation in Africa, reducing the need for manual labour in our biggest employment sector. Chatbots will eventually replace call center agents, and self-driving cars will put all Uber drivers out of work. These and other advances will translate into big gains for businesses and consumers, but where does that leave those who are most vulnerable to job losses as a result of advances in AI? 

Some have suggested interventions such as a Universal Basic Income as a remedy to the impacts of artificial intelligence on the labour market. The basic idea is that governments ought to translate the increased tax revenue brought about by increasing corporate profits into a monthly wage granted to all individuals in a society. This wage will protect against poverty, further stimulate the economy through spending and allow individuals to pursue work that is innovative and meaningful without the threat of joblessness. Numerous experiments are currently underway to test how people respond when provided with a universal basic income.

Is winter really coming?

In other words, how real are the doomsday predictions of impending mass unemployment? While it is certain that many current jobs will no longer be relevant in the coming decades, it is not clear that those made redundant will automatically fall into long-term unemployment. The type of disruption currently underway has happened before in other industries. The invention of the personal computer completely eliminated the need for typewriters, but as Kyle Polich of dataskeptic asks, how many unemployed typewriter technicians are still out there? The new opportunities presented when new technologies emerge are rapidly grasped by the innovative and entrepreneurial. 

We cannot, however, allow these opportunities to be the exclusive domain of the privileged few with access to resources and high-tech education. To redress the negative impacts of AI in employment, the tools and opportunities that it presents must be democratized and made accessible to all. Initiatives such as Software Carpentry aim to spread data literacy, enabling broader participation in the data economy. Courses such as the African Industrial Internet Program offered by the African Leadership University are creating a workforce of data scientists in Africa. Such programs are there to help unemployed typewriter technicians learn new skills and seize  opportunities that did not exist a few years ago. 

But we should not stand back and expect a just outcome in this Brave New World. We need to get our hands dirty and share our skills and knowledge as widely as possible to ensure that the data revolution benefits us all.

** Glenn is teaching a course in Data Carpentry in Cape Town this Friday.

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