Fear of a Jobless Planet: Can Entrepreneurship Counter the Coming AI Employment Crisis?
Editor’s note: Throughout 2017, NextBillion is organizing content around a monthly theme, dedicating special attention to a specific sector alongside our broader coverage. This post is part of our focus on entrepreneurship for the month of July.
Imagine a future where robots are capable of doing just about everything under the sun – quickly, efficiently and often autonomously – rendering countless professions across practically every industry obsolete:
- They’re stocking supermarket shelves and driving trucks
- They’re building homes and milking cows
- They’re diagnosing diseases and providing physical therapy
- They’re giving financial advice, developing scientific theories – even (gasp) writing blog posts
The first part of that dystopian vision has already come to pass, as the constant procession of new AI and robotics breakthroughs in recent years demonstrates (see the links above). The second part – the mass job losses – has fortunately not yet arrived. But if you believe the emerging consensus of the economists and futurists who study these things, it won’t be long before it does. And if they’re right, it’s not at all clear what can or should be done.
The scale of the problem alone is hard to contemplate – and the timeframe is daunting: A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers study estimates that the U.S. could lose 38 percent of jobs to automation in the next 15 years. Though this number is significantly higher than the predicted job losses in other developed countries, emerging markets fare much worse. A recent UN report found that automation and AI could endanger up to two-thirds of jobs – many of which have already begun to disappear.
Though these predictions are causing growing unease among workers and policymakers alike, responses to them have been mixed. The Obama administration seemed to recognize the growing economic threat of AI and automation, releasing a report in late 2016 exploring potential solutions. And a chorus of tech CEOs is pushing universal basic income as the answer for the anticipated hordes of displaced workers (a solution covered in depth in this NextBillion post from J-PAL). However, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has said the issue of artificial intelligence is not on his “radar screen” and that he imagines the changes are “50 to 100 years away.” Meanwhile, many workers seem to be in an odd state of denial: A national Pew Research Center survey in 2015 found that 65 percent of Americans expect that robots and computers will do much of the work currently done by humans within 50 years – but 80 percent expect their own jobs or professions to remain largely unchanged.
Is Entrepreneurship Up to the Challenge?
Yet even if we’re facing what some have called “the biggest challenge of our society for the next decade,” there’s reason for hope. More optimistic observers argue that, just as the invention of electricity and the horseless carriage destroyed some professions only to create countless new ones, the new age of AI will eventually defray many of these job losses, creating millions of new jobs in professions that we can’t yet imagine. But if this is to happen, the world will have to place a much higher priority on fostering a culture of entrepreneurship.
For the past month at NextBillion, our contributors have focused on entrepreneurship in emerging markets and how it’s alleviating poverty and boosting gender equality and self-determination. We heard from three guest writers in a mini-series on the “graduation” model, which trains extremely poor people to start and run their own businesses. The approach has shown great promise, enabling people with limited resources and entrepreneurial backgrounds to earn a living in settings where formal employment has always been limited. And as MetLife Foundation’s Krishna Thacker explained, innovative programs are bringing the graduation approach to scale, sometimes by embedding it in government-run social services that already reach the masses. If programs like these can turn beggars into successful entrepreneurs, as Bandhan-Konnagar’s Barid Baran described it, is it possible that similarly focused (and scaled) efforts could serve as a counterbalance to mass job losses in the age of AI?
Perhaps the same strategies that social enterprises apply to poverty alleviation in emerging markets could even be used against the threat of AI in developed ones. If people are trained in the skills necessary to start and run their own businesses – and, crucially, to support others who do – could these new businesses generate new jobs and even new industries on a massive scale? It may seem unlikely, yet IntelleGrow CEO Akbar Khan wrote on NextBillion that India’s 51 million-plus micro, small and medium enterprises are already the nation’s biggest job creators and employ an estimated 115 million people. Sometimes small businesses can have a big impact.
And for all the problems it can cause by disrupting industries and employment markets, technology can also be a key part of the solution. Grameen Foundation India CEO Prabhat Labh highlighted some ways India’s tech-fueled “JAM Trinity” is making it easier for small farmers and others to become successful in their businesses. And Alibaba founder Jack Ma recently announced a new $10 million fund to boost young African entrepreneurs and support the continent’s online businesses. He’s also planning to roll out a partnership with African universities to teach internet technology, e-commerce and – you guessed it – artificial intelligence. Expect a growing tide of similar funds and initiatives in the coming years, as the challenges of AI come into clearer focus. If these efforts bear fruit, the age of AI may not be the jobless dystopia that current media reports suggest – at least not if the global entrepreneurship community has anything to say about it.