ENGINEERING NEWS

How Artificial Intelligence Will Impact the Future of Work

Faculty fellow Mark Mills spoke as part of the Dean’s Seminar Series on May 8

Mark Mills speaks as part of the Dean's Seminar Series on May 8.

From automated robots in automobile factories to online order delivery drones, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms are changing the way we produce goods and experience services.

While these technological advances may herald new levels of business efficiency, some economic forecasters argue that the trend is leading to ‘peak jobs,’ a view that the productivity gains from AI and robotics will become so impactful that the total number of employable human workers will reach an apex — then decline.

“Productivity drove us from an agrarian society to a manufacturing society, and from manufacturing to services,” said Mark Mills, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. “There is a belief now that there’s nowhere else to go.”

But Mills isn’t afraid of robots, and he doesn’t think you should be, either.

“One of humanity’s oldest single pursuits is inventing machines to take the labor out of creating products and performing tasks,” said Mills. “It’s what we have tried to do for all of recorded history.”

A Northwestern Engineering faculty fellow, Mills discussed emerging artificial intelligence and automation technologies and their potential impact on employment as part of Northwestern Engineering’s Dean’s Seminar Series. His talk, “Robophobia and the Future of Work,” took place in the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center on May 8.

Rise of the Collaborative Robot

Mills’s talk addressed concerns over ‘peak jobs.’ Fears that technology would replace human laborers have existed for more than a century, he said. He noted societal parallels to the early 1960s, when advances in automation prompted President John F. Kennedy to propose the Manpower Development and Training Act in response to worries that machines would jeopardize American employment.

“The idea that technology creates positive and negative impacts is not new,” Mills said. “Neither is the idea that technology drives productivity, which in turn drives economies.”

Mills distinguished between two types of technologies at the center of the ‘peak jobs’ concern: virtual AI systems, like Apple’s Siri, and physical, collaborative robots. While automated physical robots have largely been relegated to manufacturing facilities, Mills believes their expansion to other industries is imminent, “We are on the cusp of truly practical cyberphysical systems and virtual robotic systems,” he said. “They are no longer notional.”

According to Mills, 2017 marked the first time that more industrial robots were purchased outside of the automotive and electronics sectors than in it, a sign that practical robot automation is gaining traction into more service-based domains.

Creating affordable rehabilitation robotics

Mills pointed to healthcare services as a sector that will benefit from increased AI and automation processes. He believes that practical automated robots will be used increasingly to support workers — not replace them — while giving patients more autonomy. A robot that can lift patients out of bed, for example, would provide relief from a traditionally cumbersome task for hospital staff, while technologies like self-driving wheelchairs would afford end-users greater independence.

“The amount of money and time that goes into patient rehabilitation from injuries or illness is staggeringly large,” Mills said. “Something as simple as a practical exoskeleton that can accelerate rehab from injuries would be profoundly productive.”

And while the cost of assistive cyberphysical robots are still too high for widespread adoption, Mills envisions the technology will follow a similar path as automobiles, which began as luxury products in the early 20th century but are now common in American life.

“Cars are the single most expensive manufactured product that we all buy,” Mills said. “They are astonishingly expensive and complex, but we sell them to everyone. Robots will follow that trajectory, but only once they reach the cost of cars.”

Making everyone a “knowledge worker”

In closing his talk, Mills credited engineers as the driving force behind past and current technological revolutions, including today’s rise of virtual and cyberphysical robot systems. While he cautioned that it will take years for AI systems to assimilate into society, he remained optimistic about the technology’s long-term economic implications.

“Engineers are really good at making complicated things easier to use,” Mills said. “If what you’re making easier to use are intelligent virtual systems like AI, you’ve made everyone a knowledge worker. That’s a good thing. Practical AI raises everyone.”