Bruce Croxon, Special to Financial Post | March 20, 2017 | Last Updated: Mar 20 8:38 AM ET
Artificial intelligence (AI) has promised to relieve us of our dullest tasks and improve almost every aspect of our lives, from transportation to health care. But, by their very nature, the best tech ideas lead to incredible efficiencies, and if those efficiencies touch on people’s jobs, it will take those jobs away.
The Industrial Revolution replaced entire job descriptions, but more highly skilled and better-paying jobs eventually followed. That may not necessarily end up the case with AI, as deep learning helps machines replace people further up the talent chain.
How many jobs could be affected? Tech billionaire Elon Musk recently estimated that AI could replace 12 to 15 per cent of the global workforce in 20 years. A report by U.K. think-tank Reform suggests AI could displace a quarter-million of the U.K.’s civil service positions at the administrative level by 2030.
It’s a bit of a clash just when we want to create new jobs. But the fact is, the fastest-growing and most vibrant part of the economy involves almost anything that adds efficiency. It’s even harder to oppose AI when such efficiencies are great for consumers, and directly create lower prices on a wide range of goods.
You only need to look to Uber to see how this efficiency can both improve service and lower costs. Every day, tech startups promise to make health care more affordable and more customized for each patient. Even robo investment advisors are doing a great job providing consumers with basic investment suggestions.
Canada happens to be a leader in the development of AI, so we really need to decide now what sort of economy we want. Will we embrace AI, knowing we can be leaders in this tech field? Or will we let other countries buy up our high-tech companies, cannibalizing us and our homegrown talent along with them?
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We talked to Yoshua Bengio on our BNN TV show, The Disruptors. He’s an AI pioneer and head of the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms at the University of Montreal.
Retaining talent is the key to a thriving tech sector, he says. While AI needs both public and private investment to thrive, he’d like to see government invest in academic centres that produce the required talent. With a critical mass of talent and infrastructure in such AI hubs as Toronto and Montreal, foreign investors would be convinced that moving the tech infrastructure wholesale would be a bad idea.
So what future is there for workers displaced by AI? We’re seeing a huge pickup in the part-time economy, where the new norm might be applying what you know to two or three situations.
We can also help promote the idea of being an entrepreneur, particularly among younger people. While working on an episode of The Disruptors, we ran into a kid at the MaRS Discovery District startup incubator in Toronto, who told us that being part of a startup today is like being a member of a garage band in his dad’s day 20 years ago.
Another public policy option would be to put up barriers to save jobs. That might work in the short term, but in the long term progress always wins. Instead, government may have to consider ideas like universal basic income to help people ease through the transition.
Bruce Croxon is co-host of BNN’s The Disruptors and partner at Round 13 Capital. On March 27, Bruce will be the moderator of an NP Talks event on how to disrupt your business.