How AI Might Create More Work Opportunity

As AI scales, it will become cheaper and faster to have some types of work done by robots instead of humans. One benefit of this is that humans will be able to focus on higher-level work that robots may not be able to do – work that requires more thinking, decision-making, or emotional intelligence, for example. However, there’s a common and natural concern that goes hand-in-hand with this: a brewing fear that “increasing robot work” inherently means “decreasing human work” (ie, jobs).

My view is much more optimistic. I believe automation is a necessity in the near term to maintain productivity. In the long run, we may even improve current lifestyles and collectively work better – fewer hours, for one, but also more safely, more healthily – with the help of AI.

An assumption behind our fear of artificial intelligence is that the pie (the number and kinds of jobs available to humans) stays the same, and robots will only take jobs away from humans. While scary, this assumption overlooks two critical points:

Robots are often filling the jobs that not many – or simply not enough – Americans want to do in the near term.
As technology advances, the pie will increase in size, meaning we actually have the ability to generate more productivity and new types of jobs.

Filling in the empty spots

A very near-term benefit of AI is to help reduce the labor shortage in labor-heavy industries such as manufacturing and agriculture. What’s happening in these industries is that there’s actually too much work that not enough people are willing to do.

Agriculture, for example, is the least digitalized industry and saw a 1% YOY decline in productivity from 2005-2014, lower than every other industry outside of construction and retail trade. Many farmers in California are so in need of technology that they are willing to try out and sign a Letter-of-Intent (LOI) with robotics companies in a matter of months. For perspective, a typical enterprise sales cycle is often 12-18 months.

Similarly, the biggest bottleneck for many factory owners is labor shortage. Thanks to Heartland VC, I recently interviewed several manufacturing owners in Indiana, and across the board, the major pain point they brought up was simply finding hourly workers, period. In some cases, the need for new workers is so great that they hire without conducting background checks. This is the single most pressing issue on many of the factory owners’ minds.

In other cases, some jobs are so dangerous for humans to do that fatality is a key concern. Cell phone tower and bridge inspection, for example, requires humans to climb to the top of these constructions to conduct work. With the improvement of accuracy and stability, drone companies now can fly overhead on behalf of humans to take pictures of the cell phone towers or bridges, and let humans workers inspect them from a far safer vantage point – the ground below.

Lan Xuezhao
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