Opinion | Give the A.I. Economy a Human Touch

This is an article from Turning Points, a special section that explores what critical moments from this year might mean for the year ahead.

Turning Point: The coronavirus pandemic inspired a wave of touchless, contactless interactions — including food delivery and medical care — and the replacement of human workers by computers and other technology.

Automation, robotics and artificial intelligence technologies have been taking over routine tasks for years. The Covid-19 pandemic has rapidly increased that trend, driven by the triple necessities of increased productivity, lower costs and human safety. Suddenly, human contact is both undesirable and more longed for than ever. Delivery companies, plumbers and even some medical providers now boast about their “zero contact” service, but we relish any chance we get to have an in-person meal or a face-to-face meeting.

As we face the future of an A.I. economy, 2020 has taught us the importance of human connection.

When I began my career in A.I. in 1983, I described A.I. in my application to the Ph.D. program at Carnegie Mellon University as “the quantification of the human thinking process, the explication of human behavior” and our “final step” to understanding ourselves.

In a way I was wrong, and in a way I was right. A.I. programs are capable of mimicking and even surpassing human brains in many tasks. But if A.I. allows us to truly understand ourselves, it will be because it liberates us from the mechanical drudgery of routine tasks and allows us to focus on our humanity and the compassionate connections between us.

We already know that many of the jobs that are being replaced will not return, because A.I. can do them much better than people at essentially zero cost. This will generate tremendous economic value but will also result in unprecedented job displacement. In my book “A.I. Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order,” I estimated that by 2033 A.I. and automation will be able to do 40 to 50 percent of our jobs.

To prepare now for the millions of displaced jobs and tackle retraining for the new skills required when A.I. is both a co-worker and a tool, I propose the 3 R’s — relearn, recalibrate and renaissance — as part of a gargantuan reimagination of how we live and work to deal with the central economic issue of our time: the A.I. revolution.

First, and perhaps easiest, is forewarning people in endangered jobs and establishing programs for them to relearn their fields in the context of A.I. The good news is that there are plenty of “human” skills that A.I. cannot master: creativity, social interaction, physically complex or dexterous work and, of course, using the A.I. tools that require human operators.

Vocational schools need to redesign their curriculums to increase courses for sustainable jobs. Governments could take the lead and provide incentives and subsidies for those courses, rather than blindly pursuing broad-brush economic measures like universal basic income. Corporations could also provide programs, such as Amazon’s Career Choice program. This program pays up to $12,000 annually over four years for Amazon’s hourly employees to earn degrees in high-demand occupations such as aircraft mechanics, computer-aided design and nursing.

Pandemic or no pandemic, the importance and number of human-centric service jobs, such as nursing, will grow as wealth and life spans increase. The World Health Organization predicts that by 2030, we will fall short of the number of health care workers required to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of “good health and well-being for all” by approximately 18 million. There is an acute need to reassess such vital, yet undervalued, human-centric service roles both in terms of how they are perceived and how much they are paid. These jobs will form a bedrock for the new A.I. economy.

As we prepare people for the eventual transition to an A.I.-driven economy, we will also need to recalibrate many of today’s jobs. Like software did a few decades ago, A.I. can augment humans’ creative thinking with a computer’s relentless ability to churn through masses of data, hypothesize alternatives or optimize outcomes. There will not be a single, generic A.I. tool, but specific tools customized for each profession and application. We may have an A.I.-based molecule generation program for drug researchers, an A.I. advertising planner for marketers or an A.I. fact checker for journalists.

Merging A.I. optimization and the human touch will reinvent many jobs and create even more. A.I. will take care of routine tasks in tandem with humans, who will carry out the tasks that require, well, humanity. For example, future doctors will still be a patient’s primary point of contact, but they will rely on A.I. diagnostic tools to determine the best treatment. This will redirect the doctor’s role into that of a compassionate caregiver, giving them more time with their patients.

Just as the mobile internet led to roles like the Uber driver, the coming of A.I. will create jobs we cannot even conceive of yet. Examples today include A.I. engineers, data scientists, data-labelers and robot mechanics. We should watch for the emergence of such roles, make people aware of them and provide training for them.

Finally, just as the wealthy Italian cities and merchants funded that country’s Renaissance, we must hope that A.I. will inspire a renaissance of its own. With machines taking over many duties and tasks in the new economy, A.I. will inject flexibility into traditional working patterns, allowing us to rethink what work-life balance should look like and transforming both the weekday routine and retirement thresholds. With more freedom and time in such a new social contract, people will be liberated to follow their passions, creativity and talents, and to let that personal exploration inform their careers as never before.

Painters, sculptors and photographers will be able to use A.I. tools to compose, experiment, enumerate and refine their artwork. Novelists, journalists and poets will use new technologies to take their writing in previously unthought-of directions. Educators, freed from the drudgery of grading and paperwork, can finally unleash their energy to design lessons that encourage curiosity, critical thinking and creativity. A.I. programs can help teach facts and figures so that teachers can spend more time developing students’ emotional intelligence.

The three R’s will represent an unparalleled undertaking for humanity. Companies will need to retrain a massive number of displaced workers. Governments must raise an astronomical amount of money and redistribute it to fund this transition. Schools need to reinvent education to produce creative, social and multidisciplinary graduates. Everything must be redefined: the work ethic of society, entitlements for citizens, responsibilities for corporations and the role of governments.

In all of this, the role of A.I. technologies is crucial. If we do it right, A.I. will free us to embrace not only our creativity and compassion for one another, but also our humanity.

Kai-Fu Lee is a computer scientist, business leader and author, and is the chairman and chief executive of Sinovation Ventures, a venture capital investment company.

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