'An evaluation of Elon Musk’s view on AI that ‘there will come a point where no job is needed’'

Dennis Sale

By Dennis Sale

ELON Musk is one of the richest and most famous people on the planet. He may also be one of the brightest, and he is no novice in the field of artificial intelligence.

Recently Elon made the statement that “there will come a point where no job is needed”. In previous columns, I explored the likely outcomes of AI, especially tools such as ChatGPT, and its impact on learning, teaching and assessment. In this column I offer my evaluation on the severe implications suggested by Elon.

For many people not familiar with the AI field, his analysis may seem to be a frightening scenario. You will only need to do a tertiary viewing of a few dozen videos about AI on YouTube (and there are many of these) for your perceptions and feelings to experience an oscillation between optimism and pessimism, as one ploughs through the differing dialogues.

On the optimistic side, there are the possibilities of unlimited energy and food provision, the curing of the nastiest of the human diseases and afflictions and, the one I like, the reduction – even reversal – of the aging process. As the Rolling Stones singer, Mick Jagger, sang on one of their many hits, “What a drag it is getting old.” I’ll go along with that, and I would like a body reboot back to around 25 years old. More realistically, I would settle for nanobots (eg, tiny self-propelled programmed vehicles for achieving a goal – in this scenario, body health maintenance) patrolling around my body systems to find decay/disease, and then painlessly doing the necessary remediation.

However, on the pessimistic side, there is the Terminator vision of AI becoming sentient, achieving superintelligence beyond our comprehension, deciding humans have no viable role to play in their Earth vision, and exterminating us.

In fact, if AI achieves superintelligence, our extermination may be a very rational choice. At present, we can destroy the planet at the press of a button or two, which no other animal has got near to doing; hence our elimination from the food chain may be a logical call from the perspective of more intelligent beings.

Of interest, in this context, the famous scientist, Stephen Hawking, noted that our sending of satellites and other radio messages into the vast void of outer space to inform any extra-terrestrial life forms in our galaxy, and beyond, of our existence may not be a wise thing to do. Life forms that can get here from wherever are likely to be so far advanced in evolutionary terms (however defined) that they may not see us as a worthwhile project – though may see our planet as a reasonable place for colonisation. You can fill in the dots from there.

In terms of AI’s impact on jobs there are some writers who paint a dismal picture. For example, Ford (2015) argues:

“…the ongoing race between technology and education may well be approaching the endgame: the machines are coming for the higher-skill jobs as well.”

His most pessimistic frame is worrying:

“In a perverse process of creative destruction, the mass-market industries that currently power our economy would be replaced by new industries producing high-value products and services geared exclusively towards a super wealthy elite. The vast majority of humanity would effectively be disenfranchised. Economic mobility would be non-existent.”

Not everyone shares such a pessimist framing. For example, in contrast, Brynjolfson and McAfee (2014) argue that:

“Computers are not useless, but there are still machines for generating answers, not posing interesting new questions. That ability still seems to be uniquely human, and still highly valuable. We predict that people who are good at idea creation will continue to have competitive advantage over digital labour for some time to come and will find themselves in demand.”

Where do I stand on this continuum of varied perspectives and on what evidence-base? Firstly, in the context of education, learning and teaching, and related curriculum issues, I have detailed this in previous columns. For the interested reader, you can access these, and all my previous columns on LinkedIn. Yes, AI will revolutionise the field of formal education and I do see a worrying feature for employment in some sectors, as Ford (2015) warns:

“If the higher education industry ultimately succumbs to the digital onslaught, the transformation will very likely be a dual-edged sword. A college credential may well become less expensive and more accessible to many students, but at the same time, technology could devastate an industry that is itself a major nexus of employment for highly educated workers.”

Certainly, jobs that are algorithmic (eg, where the work functions are clearly defined in terms of specific behavioural components and processes) will be increasingly vulnerable to an AI takeover. Also, these jobs go well beyond the now familiar factory production scenarios, but will increasingly, and quickly, impact many mainstream jobs in technology, accountancy, legal, and medical diagnoses.

Jobs less vulnerable are those that involve complex decision-making, critical and creative thinking, and high-level skills that are not easy to automate. These would include research scientists and engineers, leadership and management roles, skilled craftsmen in most industries, customer service and support positions, social workers, carers, artists, musicians and entertainers– if they have market niches.

To predict how many new jobs will emerge because of new AI innovations and implementation is highly speculative as the field is changing so rapidly, and we may be going into increasingly unknown territory. Certainly, if there are great reductions in the number of jobs available – that is a significant net loss in terms of automated job losses against new jobs created – how would a world, increasingly comprised of ‘unemployed people’ be catered for, both in terms of income and meaning?

There is already a growing body of high-level personnel, both inside the AI industry and across many other fields, calling for a global review and evaluation of AI developments, with the aim of framing policy, practices, and safeguards.

In summary for this column, I would urge more people to take a thoughtful interest in the ongoing debates about AI, and I will continue to write here with my frame on the most current and validated research. There is no doubt that we are in an era of critical decision-making that will significantly impact the lives of our children and future generations. Most importantly, this will happen quickly – very quickly.

  • Dennis Sale worked in the Singapore education system for 25 years as an adviser, researcher and examiner. He coached over 15,000 teaching professionals and provided 100+ consultancies in the Asian region. Dennis is author of the books Creative Teachers: Self-directed Learners (Springer 2020) and Creative Teaching: An Evidence-Based Approach (Springer, 2015). To contact Dennis, visit dennissale.com.

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