RN Late Night Live

27 September 2017




SUBJECT/S: New book Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the New Machine Age


PHILLIP ADAMS: The little wireless program has been looking at the various disturbing and disruptive and destructive technologies in some ways that are affecting various workplaces and that is our theme on this occasion. We want to look at the vast changes going on in the types of work that humans will be able to do in the future and we are of course beginning to see this profound reorganisation of economy on a global scale. Who are the winners and the losers? How can and should we manage the robot age? 


Now my next two guests have done a great deal of thinking on the topic. Toby Walsh is one of the world's leading researchers in artificial intelligence. Toby's a Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of New South Wales, but on this occasion, he's in Berlin. And Tony's the author of It's Alive! Artificial Intelligence From The Logic Piano to Killer Robots. 


Jim Chalmers, we welcome Jim. He's the Shadow Minister for Finance and well-credentialed academically. He's written a book with Mike Quigley, who's the former head of the NBN called Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the New Machine Age and I welcome both of you.


Jim, you talk about us undergoing the seventh big change in human work. But this one is bigger and more profound. The seventh?


JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FINANCE: G'day, Phillip. I think this one is a bit different. The first six were the First Agricultural Revolution; then the Scientific Revolution; the British Agricultural Revolution; the Industrial one, which everyone points to; then we had electrification; then we had the Digital Computer Revolution, which started to gather pace from the middle of the last century. But all of those earlier revolutions in my view, they replaced human effort. But what this one is doing, and what makes it different to the six that went before it, is this one replaces a lot of the traits that we consider to be inherently human - things like thinking and problem solving and learning.


ADAMS: So it's not sure much about muscularity as mental processes?


CHALMERS: There's that as well. Obviously the robotics side of things still has the capacity to replace physical effort. But I think what's happened now is we've got this extraordinary growth in computing power matched with more sophisticated algorithms and bigger and better sets of data. And what that means is the machines can really learn and improve their own performance and that's what makes this one a bit different and a bit of a bigger challenge to what we consider to be inherently human.


ADAMS: I'm about to totter out of the workplace of course at my vast age, but if I were a little younger I'd have to learn to adapt and I'm very bad at adaption. Tony, we've seen the demise of many blue collar jobs over the last 30 years, but the next wave will be blue and white collar. Who will be hit hardest and why?


TOBY WALSH, PROFESSOR OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, UNSW: It's hard to know who's going to be hit hardest, but it is the case as you point out that it won't be just the people in factories. If you go to a car factory today, it is true that robots are doing lots of the work. They're doing the welding and the painting and they're doing a far better job than humans ever did. And we're never going to get those jobs back. But, as you say, some of the white collar jobs are now disappearing. Things like journalists and accountants. Some of the things that we thought you went to university to make yourself safe from the machines. Those things are now being automated. But it is also worth pointing out we've still got a long way to go to really get artificial intelligence. We only build very specialised, very focused intelligence. So we still a few traits - our adaptability, our creativity and our social and emotional intelligence that are uniquely human, and will be for some time.


ADAMS: Toby, you're rushing ahead a little. But let's just look at the sorts of jobs that are likely to evaporate. You talk about jobs with a degree of predictability - accounting, legal work, insurance, bank tellers. And then of course, taxi drivers, truck drivers, retail. Even medical?


WALSH: Yes. Actually I think that some of these highly trained medical specialists, we've now got computer programs that can do radiology better than radiologists; that can predict and read x-rays, that can diagnose cancer with the greatest of expertise and do it far quicker and far cheaper than humans can. So I don't think even some of the medical professions are safe. In fact, the safest job in the medical profession I think is probably a GP, because we're still going to want to see a GP who actually corrals all of that knowledge together and then delivers it to us in a touching, humane way. 


ADAMS: I noticed well over 10 or 15 years ago that we were moving into a degree of AI in airlines. Pilots were spending less and less time driving the damn things as more and more of those functions were taken over. So it's not only the category, it's also in a sense the responsibility level that's been taken over.


WALSH: It is. I think airline pilots are a very good example, because it's a very automated job flying a plane. Most of the time the computer is flying the plane - 95 per cent of the time it's a computer flying it. And when it's a soft landing, you know the computer was in charge, not the human. But there's a social acceptance there. Are we really prepared not to have a human up at the front? I'm not sure that we are yet and so even though that job could be largely automated, it's one where I'm not sure that we're prepared to go that far. 


ADAMS: I would like the American presidency to be automated as a matter of urgency!  I think that the danger of human error is much greater! Now, Jim, hundreds of thousands of people in Australia may lose their jobs and they'll lose their entire career. What would be the flow-on effects to the rest of the community when one by one in some sort of domino effect these jobs topple?


CHALMERS: Well the predictions about how many jobs will be destroyed vary really widely between something like five per cent of today's jobs over the next decade or two all the way up to 47 per cent of today's jobs disappearing. So the first thing to note is it's very, very unpredictable. But all jobs will change and the example you just spoke with Toby about - aviation - is a perfect example where technology has revolutionised flying, but it hasn't completely replaced humans. It's augmented the work that pilots do and we will see lots and lots of that. But because automation and machine learning and AI and all of these things are creeping their way up the income ladder, what we're seeing is a real hollowing out of the middle income jobs. So some of the jobs that you've just talked about, but jobs like translators for example is one example that I've talked about before. Other examples of people that we would consider to be skilled workers, people that you guys a moment ago mentioned as someone university would protect from losing a job in those industries, those jobs are being hollowed out. A lot of skilled people are being pushed down into some of the lower-income jobs that aren't being automated. You know, baristas, hairdressers, gardeners and the like and what that does is that has big impacts for wages and also for inequality.


ADAMS: Jim, that's an interesting point that you make. That we see a narrowing of the gap between countries and an increase in inequality within countries.


CHALMERS: Absolutely. And technology is a tremendous force for good in general terms, in aggregate terms. And we are seeing technology close the gap between countries, but we're seeing it has the capacity to widen the inequality gap within countries, and that's for a range of reasons that should concern us. Things like hollowing out the middle-income jobs as I just mentioned. Things like changing the necessary skills that you need to succeed, which may be expensive to acquire of difficult to acquire in other ways. It changes the power relationship that people have at work to the detriment of employees and empowers employers, the owners of the robots and the intelligence. So for all of these reasons, despite technology being such a terrific thing that can help us overcome the obstacles to a good life, they also have things that trouble us greatly and where that matters to us, or should matter most to us, is its capacity to increase inequality. 


ADAMS: Toby, we've been doing a lot of programs on the gig economy. But if you look a little further, will there be adults in this country who will never work, or at least work very, very little?


WALSH: Historically, the evidence suggests that sometimes when people get people get put out of work and their job gets replaced that those people never get around to start another career. Education, I think, is going to be really crucial. We're very uncertain as to the number of jobs that will be replaced and displaced. But we are pretty certain that the jobs will require different skills. If you are somebody who doesn't have any other skills, how do we educate, how does society support you to get those new skills, and that's a really troubling question in the gig economy. How are you going to get the time and money to afford to learn the new skills that will get you your next job.


ADAMS: Jim, you belong to a party with a very quaint, old fashioned name involving labour. And that in turn, of course, derived from union power and we see less and less of that with the passing of time? Will the Labor Party need to find a new name?


CHALMERS: No, I can't see that quite happening, Phillip, but I do think we need to find a more modern approach to some of these challenges that we're talking about. For example, you mentioned the union movement. The union movement is doing a heap of work to ensure that they keep up with these trends. Unions will be as important as ever in establishing some minimum conditions in the gig economy, making sure that the entitlements that people need, for example superannuation and others can get carried from one  gig to another gig. All of these sorts of things are really, really crucial. But whether it's the industrial side of the labour movement, or the political side of the labour movement, we need to make sure that we have new forward-looking, modern responses to these challenges rather than just rely on the old ones.

ADAMS: Toby, one of the interesting responses to what we're discussing comes from this. Earlier this year I spoke to a young Dutchman Rutger Bregman, who's one of many strong advocates of a universal basic income, as well as a shorter working week. In your view, is that idea worth considering, the idea that you don't have to work, that you'll get a basic income anyway?


WALSH: I think it's worth considering. It's not clear that it's necessarily going to be the right solution. But in the Industrial Revolution we did make some pretty radical changes to our society, which introduced the welfare state. We introduced unions and labour laws, those things that may now need additional strengthening. And, in fact, we introduced the modern corporation to actually provide an umbrella that we could develop the technology and share this prosperity. I think we may need to think similar, radical changes for this. And that may be universal basic income, and there's other things on the table like negative tax rates and so on, but we may have to make some pretty radical changes to make sure that all of us benefit and not just the owners of the robots.


ADAMS: Jim, are you seeing any stirrings of new ideas in Parliament?


CHALMERS: Of course there are always new policy ideas that people pitch up, and we have tried to pitch up some policy ideas of our own in our contribution to this conversation. The universal basic income is something that a lot of people have put forward. I've thought of that long and hard and I don't support that particular policy because we've got a pretty well-targeted social security system. The more targeted you can make your welfare system, the more likely you are to help people who really need it. I fear that a universal basic income, if it is applied universally at the same rate, has the capacity to make societies actually less equal. It trades away the ability to help people who need it the most. So I wouldn't go that path, but some of the other things we need to consider - someone graduating from Year 12 today will have something like 17 different employers, five completely different careers in their working life, and that has implications for lifelong learning of course. It's no longer appropriate to just do one block of training for three years or four years after you've finished high school and that will sustain you for a job for 40 years. You've got to think about lifelong learning, but you also got to think about how do you smooth out people's incomes with all of those transitions across 17 different employers? How do you make sure people have the capacity to maintain a standard of living when they're in between jobs. And that's really I think the task of the modern social security system. So we need to think about things like income smoothing and a whole range of other ideas like that.


ADAMS: LNL and my guests are Jim Chalmers, Shadow Minister for Finance and co-author of Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the New Machine Age and Toby Walsh, the author of It's Alive! Artificial Intelligence from the Logic Piano to Killer Robots. Sorry Toby, what's the logic piano?


WALSH: The logic piano was one of the very first computing devices, introduced by William Jevons in the 18th century. It still sits in the Oxford Museum of Science. 


ADAMS: Jim, what are your concerns about workers' rights?


CHALMERS: I think some people enjoy the freedom that comes with working in the gig economy, but for a lot of others, the reality is very different. I've spent some time for example on the west coast of the United States with the ACTU and the Transport Workers Union speaking with some of these companies about how we ensure we get the best aspects of the gig economy for workers without trading away some of the things that people rely on - basic occupational health standards; the capacity to accumulate superannuation and retirement savings; the capacity to insure yourself. All of these sorts of conditions that have been fought for in the workplaces of the past, which are still necessary in some form or another in the workforces of the future. So I think that industrial relations is a really key consideration when we think about the machine age. Those aspects, those minimum standards, but also the very nature of the power relationship changes dramatically when there are jobs that can be automated. So we need to work out ways that we can strengthen workers' hands in the workplace. There are some very smart academics out of the United States for example who talk of the concept of "counterpower", which is basically how do we empower people in the digital economy to set their own rules?


ADAMS: I'm sorry to interrupt, but I've just had a call from Bill Gates, who's a regular listener and he's phoned in with the suggestion of a robot tax. He reckons that if a robot replaces someone who does $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that the robot should be taxed at the same level, applying your artificial intelligence Toby, what do you reckon?


WALSH: It's an interesting idea, but I think it's got some fundamental flaws in it. It's very hard actually to point out one robot for one job. The machines are coming in in much more subtle ways. So it's not going to be so easy to say, well this is the robot that replaced my job and this is the robot, therefore, that is going to be paying my tax in the future. If only it was that simple. But I would agree with the Shadow Minister, that we really do have to think about workers' right. If we take a company like Uber that's an industry that maybe did need some transformation, but we've got this disastrous organisation now that it's in the middle between the people with cars and the people who need to be transported and the turmoil is you could have actually seamlessly connected those people are empowered the people with the cars. But at the moment we're in a situation where those people don't earn enough money that some of them are sleeping in their cars. If we get it right, we could not have this billion dollar corporation that sits in the middle. It's hard to begin to know where to criticise because if you behave so badly, and yet the technology could offer something so much better in connecting the consumer to the market.


ADAMS: LNL on RN and my guests are Labor MP and Shadow Finance Minister Jim Chalmers and Professor of Artificial Intelligence Toby Walsh. What's that? Oh, apparently Bill Gates has called back and he's withdrawn that suggestion but thinks that robots should be organised in trade unions. Toby, is the artificial intelligence industry currently under regulated?


WALSH: It is under-regulated, yes. There is very little regulation. Companies like Facebook do experiments on the public with no regulation, no oversight, no control. And I do think we do need to think more strongly about regulating. These are corporations that are now as wealthy and as powerful as small countries, and yet they don't seem to be willing to pay any tax in the places in which that wealth is generated to support the generation of that wealth. So I do think that we need to think about the extent of their power and we also see it now in the extent it's having on  the political debate. There's serious question marks about what happened in the Trump election, what happened in the Brexit vote about the influence that digital media had on that. So I think we will have to start thinking about, like any big industry, it is now one of the biggest industries that there is, to regulate it so that it actually is acting in the public's best interest.


ADAMS: Jim, how can we ameliorate the threats?


CHALMERS: I think those last two points that Toby made are really the most important points in the whole conversation. The first one is that technology has the capacity to do a lot of good, but it also has the potential to do a lot of evil. We need to put some thought into how we make technology work for people, not against them. The second one is an answer to your question about regulation. I think collectively a lot of people are at fault of being spectators in this whole thing, assuming they we can have these enormous changes in the workplace and not have them accompanied by changes in the way that we do Government policy, the way we teach our young people, even our personal mindset. All of these sorts of things need to change substantially as well right across the board. Industrial relations we've talked about, education we've talked about, social security we've talked about. But also the way that we approached the new workplace will determined whether we succeed or fail. Things like self-education, things like mentoring, things like rectifying the situation where girls are not participating in science and maths as young people to the same extent that boys are. All of these things matter and we need to catch up and keep up.


ADAMS: Toby, I want to end by putting a whimsical question to you. Are there, in your view some jobs in which AI should not be allowed to intrude?


WALSH: Oh, 100 per cent. There are many jobs. We shouldn't be letting machines make decisions that have life or death consequences. We shouldn't be putting machines into the battle field, we shouldn't be putting machines into the judiciary. There are some jobs that really go to the heart of our humanity and even if we can get machines to do them better, I think we just want humans to do them because they speak to those human values and the things that we can identify with as humans.


ADAMS: I think it should apply to broadcasters personally but I may be biased! Toby, thank you terribly much for your contribution. Toby Walsh, a Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of New South Wales, one of the world's leading researchers in AI and his book is called It's Alive! Artificial Intelligence from the Logic Piano to Killer Robots. And thank you Jim. Jim Chalmers, Shadow Minister for Finance, and his book is called Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the New Machine Age.