Rise of the machines

The premise of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cult movie series Terminator is that the American military built a central control system based on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Inevitably, as the system grew smarter, its creators were unable to understand it and could only hope it would behave as desired once fully activated. That’s where things went off the rails.

What once sounded like off-the-wall science fiction now has an eerie sense of impending reality. In July 2017, an AI research team at Facebook allegedly shut down a research project when the system began to develop a private language. Social and mainstream media jumped on it and quickly created a sensational news cycle of mostly fake news — or at least grossly exaggerated.

While such disturbing scenarios might pose a threat one day, the more immediate threat brought on by AI, robots and other forms of workforce automation is this: a fundamental disruption of our labor markets — real or perceived — and the need for businesses and governments to get ahead of the resulting onslaught of sensational news coverage and other extreme responses. As Tesla CEO Elon Musk told the National Governors Association at a meeting in July, “Robots will do everything better than us... [and] AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization.” A few days later he proclaimed that artificial intelligence presents “vastly more risk than North Korea.”

The risk being that if robots can perform many tasks better than humans — or eventually ALL tasks, as Musk asserts — millions of jobs will be eliminated with catastrophic consequences for the global work force. According to Oxford economist Carl Frey and machine learning expert Michael Osborne, 47 percent of all jobs in the United States could be eliminated by roughly 2030.

On the other hand, many experts disagree with such a gloomy forecast and instead point to the job-creating properties of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution (the digital revolution): It takes many humans to create robots and other forms of workforce automation. In addition, humans will likely work alongside robots, rather than being fully replaced. And most importantly: New business models will emerge, creating value in many ways we cannot yet even imagine.

Remember that even during the original Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, many predicted automation such as the assembly line would kill manufacturing jobs. In fact, while there have been many cases of displacements and hardships to vulnerable parts of the workforce, it is beyond dispute that the paradigm shift brought on by the steam engine resulted in unprecedented economic growth and job creation.

Herein lies the problem, while no one can predict the future, many try. Media, bloggers and politicians will amplify the bits and pieces of information they believe in, or that best serve their purposes. The likely result will be new waves of fear, uncertainty and doubt — not unlike what we’ve seen since the last presidential election cycle, where demagogues were able to create the perception that undocumented farm workers from south of the border will gobble up all the manufacturing jobs in the Rust Belt.

The burden and the opportunity to align perception with facts will again fall to communicators in media, government and business. To be responsible, they should follow a few simple guidelines:

  • Make Sense of Science — Enable key constituencies to form their own opinions by turning complex and hard-to-understand scientific studies into more accessible information without compromising academic rigor.
  • Rely on Trustworthy Sources — In the day and age of economically-challenged mainstream media and flourishing free-wheeling social media, not all sources are created equal. Communicators need to apply critical thinking and do basic research to identify and promote legitimate sources and avoid spreading fake news.
  • Be Empathetic — There will be winners, and there will be losers. Feel free to celebrate the winners, but don’t ignore or disrespect the losers. Learn to understand them by trying to imagine what they go through. This was one of the big lessons learned from the news cycle surrounding the most recent presidential election: Liberal elite communicators tended to label any and all Trump supporters as ‘idiots’ without understanding that many who cast Republican votes this time around had been struggling for decades to provide for their families. They were in search of something new and different that would change their circumstances.

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Burghardt Tenderich is a Professor of Professional Practice and the Associate Director of the Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. He's the author of...

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