Artificial intelligence, also known as AI has long been the subject of many science fiction movies, most famously shown in the Terminator series when we see the “Rise of Machines”; AI becomes self-aware and seeks to overrun and destroy the human race. However, most science fiction movies have human beings at the helm of advanced technologies. I have wanted to be a pilot for my whole life, but will I really have a future in my chosen career? Could my dream job be ‘Terminated’? Today I am going to explore the rise of AI. I will cover two main aspects around the topic: Firstly the influence AI is likely to have on the future workforce. To illustrate the issues I will focus on how the advance of AI will impact my lifelong job aspirations, as well as my career decisions when I leave school. For my second aspect, I will explain the impact AI could have on society and how all our lives could be affected as a whole.
I have dreamt of becoming a pilot since I was a young age. What I haven’t realised until recently is how much the role has really changed. The first ever flight was achieved by the Wright brothers in 1903. In the 114 years since then, aviation has majorly evolved to get to where it is today with the application of new and advanced technology. AI is the next step. But what exactly is AI? Over recent years the cockpit of a passenger aircraft has become a marvel of advanced technology. Autopilot has allowed for planes to fly without pilots needing to control the plane “hands on”- we’ve all probably heard people say “what does a pilot do now anyway!”. Autopilot used to be officially classified as AI ‘but has fallen off the definition as ( it’s) become commonplace.” according to Flight Safety Australia magazine. As put by Business Dictionary, true AI now refers to “Software technologies that make a computer or robot perform equal to or better than normal human computational ability in accuracy, capacity, and speed”. In the context of aviation that now seems to mean pilotless planes.
We have always taken it for granted that a pilot is needed to manage the autopilot systems. This could soon change. In July 2013 the United States successfully took off and landed a military drone. The program was incredibly expensive, costing the government over 1.1 billion US dollars, but nonetheless showed that flight was possible without a pilot. Also American aircraft manufacturer Boeing estimates 637,000 pilots will be needed globally to fly commercial aircraft in the next two decades. This is a massive problem because only 200,000 pilots have been trained ever since the aviation industry begun! China is one of the big drivers of this demand as there simply isn’t the population of pilots available to meet their rapidly growing requirement for air travel. In November 2017 Boeing’s Chief Technology Officer Paul Eremenko announced plans to introduce AI, and this is what he said: “Airbus SE is looking to develop autonomous aircraft and technologies that will allow a single pilot to operate commercial jetliners, helping cut costs for carriers….. “We’re pursuing single-pilot operation as a potential option and a lot of the technologies needed to make that happen has also put us on the path towards unpiloted operation.” Up until now, I have thought my career path was set (and safe), but what if artificially intelligent aircraft also meant pilots were no longer needed at all? Not having to train pilots would certainly solve the global shortage, but what about the pilots who are currently in the industry and those of us aspiring to become pilots? Could the role really be eliminated? There are several key areas that we all need to examine. This is to determine if we ever could have pilotless planes, it all revolves around the question ‘is it safe?’
Firstly we need to ask ourselves a key question as passengers. Would we really feel safe in the thought that we were stepping into an aircraft with a computer in control of our lives? A large study was recently done on citizens from the USA, UK, Australia, France, and Germany to see how many people would take a pilotless flight from each country. The USA came out with the highest percentage of those who would fly in a pilotless plane at 27%. The two countries with the lowest percentages were France and Germany at 13% of each. So, people would take a flight controlled by AI. Another research shows that younger people, especially in the ages between 18 to 24 and 25 to 34 have the highest likelihood of taking a pilotless flight with 28% and 31% respectively. One reason for this could be that younger generations are more accepting of technology being a part of their lives. AI has already been introduced to society in many situations, with self-driving cars as a significant example.
Secondly the changes needed in air regulations would be enormous. To fly a simple remote-controlled drone requires certain regulations to abide by. A phenomenal amount of cooperation would be needed from organisations worldwide to create regulations so that pilotless planes could be safely flown across international airspace. This would take time.
Thirdly what are the potential problems? When flying in a plane there is always the chance the pilot could make an error, but with a plane controlled by a computer, it goes to a whole new level. Rather than worrying about a terrorist attack on board the plane, attacks could happen through hacking. Or if a terrorist attack happened in the air, how could a computer deal with the issue?
I believe ethical decision making is the most important question around AI. AI works on algorithms and those algorithms work in a ‘black box’, as explained by Zeynep Tufekci in her Ted Talk. We just don’t know how it thinks, and where the algorithm is going or where it comes from. Major problems have been caused when AI has been used for making difficult decisions such as sentencing criminal cases. There will always be the need for human compassion and values when it comes to tough decisions. There are potentially many tough decisions that pilots deal with every day. Being a pilot involves practising something called airmanship. A lot more than mechanically flying the aircraft, it includes the pilot’s awareness of the aircraft, the environment in which it operates and his or her own limitations. Would AI really be able to factor all those elements in, would it know what it didn’t know, be able to pull ideas out of the box like in the famous Hudson River landing, would it really care for the passengers onboard like a pilot would? – after all the passengers are trusting the pilot with their lives regardless of whether it would be human or AI.
So there are many hurdles to overcome before we get to pilotless planes, but the potential financial incentives are huge ($35bn USD per year could be saved according to a report by Investment bank UBS ) and the research to make it possible is happening. I looked at how at risk is my dream job is thought to be… An Oxford University study predicts airline pilot jobs are 18% at risk of being ‘Terminated’ by AI… Not a huge percentage, so perhaps I do have a future in the airline industry, although the job itself might look radically different to how I currently see it by the time I am well into the career.
AI is not only going to impact the aviation industry however. There are many other jobs that are likely to be at risk – that means your future career too (PAUSE FOR EFFECT). Over the years robots and automation have replaced the jobs for those in traditional ‘working-class’ occupations e.g. factory workers, and even ‘white collar’ (middle management) roles have been affected. We’ve had events in history like the industrial revolution, but we are now entering into a new world, a new generation, and this is the AI revolution. The workplace as we have known it is completely changing and the roles of humans in the workplace are changing beyond recognition.
AI already has an influence on things we do in our day to day lives. So what is the impact going to be on our society overall; is it a good thing or is it a bad thing?
On the positive side, its ability to quickly process huge amounts of data and learn which data is most relevant to us helps make life more efficient. This ability can be applied to everything from the familiar internet search engines to the research work of a junior lawyer to flying a plane and everything in between. AI doesn’t need to be paid so it reduces the costs of production to firms, making products and services cheaper for customers, which is great for consumers. The knock -on effect to society is not so good however because it replaces the job role of a human. Some job sectors are likely to be almost eliminated by AI- taxi drivers are said to be 89% at risk according to the Oxford University study.
According to a different study (from Oxford Martin), all of the developed nations on Earth are likely to see job loss rates across all sectors up to 47% within the next 25 years. Let’s just think about that for a moment…. nearly half of all the jobs on earth as we know it are likely to be gone by the time we are all 40.. (PAUSE). As a nation and as a planet, how are we going to deal with unemployment on such a vast scale?
It seems the views on the matter are divided into three different paths we could head down. Firstly, jobs may not necessarily disappear; new jobs could emerge as a result, just as they did after the industrial revolution. For example, if planes became fully automated and controlled by AI, the role of a pilot could change from being ‘hands on’ in the cockpit of the plane to controlling it from the ground. That would mean different skills would be required for the job. So should I be studying computer science rather than focussing on getting my commercial pilots licence? What should we all be studying? Now there’s a thought.
There is also another path we could head down as a population, illustrated by a recent experiment done in Finland. The Finnish government gave 560 euros per month to those who were unemployed, to see how those people would act with the money given to them. 560 euros is a very small amount to live off and is an example of the concept known as a Universal Basic Income. It was interesting to see how it changed the lives of some (e.g. some people started their own business, safe in the knowledge they could pay the rent) but changed nothing for others. In the future, AI and automation may take the majority of jobs, and people may be paid a Universal Basic Income. But then who would be paying everyone and how could we ensure everyone was getting a fair amount of money? Could our society in its present form really do this?… which leads me to the final possible future scenario.
There are those who think that unless the world ends, halting the rise of AI, we will become slaves to the machines we invented and that we will end up with a few trillionaires while everyone else is living in poverty. It would be like living in a world where fiction like the Hunger Games becomes a chilling reality.
In my opinion, I think we need to be careful how far we go down the path of AI to avoid this from happening; all things in moderation. People will always be needed for making compassionate and ethical decisions. Our values and ethics will become increasingly important as AI develops to ensure we do not become unthinking servants to it, and make sure we use it with good intentions to help others.
In summary I have talked to you about how AI could impact the workforce for the good and the bad. I have used my future career pathway, aviation as a major example to explore how our jobs could be affected. It isn’t long before we all need to start thinking about what we want to do as a career when we leave school, so I hope this speech has helped you to weigh up the pros and cons of AI and how your own future career could be affected. I also hope it’s shown the need to stay connected to this issue so we can have a voice in the way AI could be shaping the world we live in.