The Accelerating Impacts of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics on Human Societies

The Artificial Intelligence Contagion contains numerous analyses and extensive research notes about how AI/Robotics is interacting with, triggering, and affecting the human world.  This includes work, economic activity, wealth distribution and inequality, resource sufficiency, health care and addictions, homelessness, financial uncertainty, invasions of privacy, and surveillance systems that are expanding the power of governments to control their populations.  And these challenges are only a part of what is taking place.

A core part of the message in Contagion is that the changes are accelerating. Nonetheless, at the level of individual awareness, those not directly affected by the AI, machine learning, and other automation developments may perceive only tangential changes – some of them positive such as Alexa or Siri getting better at recognizing voices, facial recognition making it easier to board an airplane, on-line shopping and scanning. But at the macro level the challenges presented by snowballing technological developments are coming upon us with increasing speed, pervasiveness, and power. 

We are poorly prepared to anticipate, mitigate and respond to what is occurring.  Our leaders and populations lack the grounding necessary to understand the nature of the ongoing transformation.  Nor do they seem able to figure out what to do about the incredible challenges of AI/robotics by means of solutions that can buffer the worst of the impacts.  Such concerns are at the heart of Contagion.

Over the next several weeks we will post annotated material that appeared in published articles and reports just during the month of May 2019 on issues such as jobs, homelessness, technological developments in AI/robotics, privacy and surveillance, economic impacts and trends.  The point is to reinforce our awareness of the speed of the developments and the certainty of the impacts.  Even though Contagion contains almost 900 endnotes, they reflect the AI/robotics developments between 2013 and 2018.  It is vital we understand that the effects of Artificial Intelligence and the evolution of linked robotic systems is an accelerating phenomenon that is likely to impact our social and economic systems even more rapidly than predicted by many experts.

It is unlikely that we possess the wisdom and the will to resist short-term complacency regarding the extraordinary challenges posed by AI and automation.  But if we fail to do so, we face a situation far worse than climate change or terrorism.  If we fail, the potential long-term impacts threaten social disintegration and collapse, expansion of intensely authoritarian and repressive political systems (including in the Western democracies), rising poverty, homelessness, starvation, and violence.  Soon enough, we will find that global economic systems will be degraded to the point of being unable to provide work, sustenance, and support for their people.  This is the message of Contagion.  Solutions must be found, and soon.

Reports on Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Job Loss Published in May 2019  “57% See Artificial Intelligence as Threat to Human Race”, Scott Rasmussen, 4/24/19.  “Robots will ‘wipe out or drastically change’ millions of jobs: Millions of jobs could be wiped out or changed almost beyond recognition as robots swoop in and take over, experts have warned.”  Lucy Domachowski, 4/25/19.

“The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) has issued the stark warning estimating robots and AI will eliminate almost one in six roles completely, while a further third will “change radically”.  That brings the total of affected jobs to a massive 46%.  Experts from OECD say new jobs will be created to replace the lost posts, but traditional full-time, permanent employment may become a thing of the past for most workers, and those with the fewest skills and least training are most vulnerable.  An OECD report says: “Individuals will face deep and rapid changes: many will have to change not only their job but even their occupation, and most will have to modernize their skills and working practices.  “These transitions towards new jobs and occupations might be difficult and costly for a number of workers.” “  “ ‘Retail apocalypse’ now: Analysts say 75,000 more U.S. stores could be doomed”, Abha Bhattarai, Washington Post, 4/10/19.  “An estimated 75,000 stores that sell clothing, electronics and furniture will close by 2026, when online shopping is expected to make up 25% of retail sales, according to UBS. Roughly 16% of overall sales are made online.”

Rise of the robots: Bank deploys ‘ Pepper’ to assist customers”,   Ron Hurtibise, South Florida Sun Sentinel, 5/29/19.

“Don’t be afraid, but a robot is being deployed to serve you at one of the world’s largest banks.  Its name is Pepper. It’s a humanoid robot with a tablet for a chest and wheels that let it get around on its own. It’s shiny and cute. It has arms and it has hands that it can tighten into a fist.  But it doesn’t want to hurt you or take anyone’s job, say officials of HSBC Bank, where Pepper is being put to work.  …. SoftBank has deployed more than 15,000 Peppers across the globe since 2014, mostly to Asia — where they can be found in retail stores, restaurants, schools, and banks — and Europe, where, among other functions, they greet visitors at museums, libraries, and auto dealerships….”   “Robots are taking on more warehouse jobs”, 5/28/19.

Human workers are confined to opposite edges of this 17-acre roofed space: delivery bays and shipping bays about a football field apart. The vast concrete area between them belongs to 225 electric powered, eerily silent robotic Butlers that perform tasks people used to do.  …  Companies setting up ready-to-ship warehouses [in Georgia] last year included Target’s furniture line, Wayfair home furnishings and Dynacraft bikes and scooters. Amazon has four “fulfillment” centers scattered from Braselton to Macon.

It’s clear the industry is changing. What’s less clear is how much that will translate into a jobs boom or bust as automation and artificial intelligence increasingly take over the work.

The low-slung Butlers are manufactured by GreyOrange in Alpharetta, Georgia, the American headquarters of the Singapore company. … Products that arrive at one door can be stocked and on their way to buyers in as little as two hours, touched by human hands only two or three times.  “Robot in aisle 3: Retail turns more and more to machines”, Hiawatha Bray, 5/26/19.

Marty is not some teenager working an after-school shift. It is 140 pounds of plastic and metal, with glowing lights atop a towering frame with big cartoon eyes, and cameras and lasers to spot garbage, spills, and other stuff that shouldn’t be in the aisles of a supermarket.  The $35,000 machine is one of about 500 robots that Stop & Shop’s owner, the Dutch company Ahold Delhaize, has deployed in some of its US grocery stores. And in the process, Ahold is doing its part to normalize robots in public places.  … Walmart, for example, is deploying hundreds of machines to scrub the floors of its stores and take inventory by scanning the shelves. Companies such as Starship Technologies and are testing robots that roll down sidewalks delivering pizzas and soda pop in Seattle, London, Beijing, and other cities.  Meanwhile, Agility Robotics of Albany, Ore., recently announced a partnership with Ford Motor Co. on an automated package delivery system that combines a self-driving van with a two-legged walking robot. The van will drive itself to the destination; the robot will pick out the correct package and walk it to the customer’s doorstep. The only humans involved will probably be awestruck spectators. … [T]he rise of robots may threaten the jobs of millions of workers, such as those who went on strike earlier this year at Marty’s home base, Stop & Shop. Erikka Knuti, communications director for the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, said her group is all for technological innovation, but she said the company should invest in people first.  “Robots will take our jobs. We’d better plan now, before it’s too late”, Larry Elliott, 2/1/19.

The opening of the Amazon Go store in Seattle brings us one step closer to the end of work as we know it.  A new sort of convenience store opened in the basement of the headquarters of Amazon in Seattle in January. Customers walk in, scan their phones, pick what they want off the shelves and walk out again.  At Amazon Go, there are no checkouts and no cashiers. Instead, it is what the tech giant calls “just walk out” shopping, made possible by a new generation of machines that can sense which customer is which and what they are picking off the shelves. Within a minute or two of the shopper leaving the store, a receipt pops up on their phone for items they have bought.”  “Walmart experiments with AI to monitor stores in real time”, Anne D’Innocenzio, 4/25/19.  “5 Ways Robotics Will Disrupt the Construction Industry in 2019”, Kayla Mathews, 1/23/19.  “More than 7,000 Robots Will Work in Construction by 2025, Report Says: Worldwide market for construction robots to reach $226M over six years”, 5/7/19, RBR Staff.  “Ford layoffs hit 7,000 jobs worldwide, hundreds in US”,  Thomas Barrabi,  5/20/19.

“Ford Motor CompanyOpens a New Window. on Monday informed employees that it would lay off about 7,000 salaried workersOpens a New Window., or 10 percent of its global workforce, in the coming months in a cost-cutting measure that officials said would save about $600 million per year.”  “As Seattle’s new hotels roll out automation to serve guests, workers worry”, Melissa Hellmann,  5/18/19.  “Robots Thrive in the Forest on Jobs That Humans Find Too Boring”,  Jesper Starn, 5/10/19. “Swedish forest companies are using AI for tedious tasks”.  “More than 6m [UK] workers fear being replaced by machines – report: Government and trade unions urged to do more for those at risk from new technologies”, Richard Partington, 8/5/18.  “One in five UK post offices could close in next year, survey finds: Biggest concerns for postmasters include falling incomes and higher costs”, Angela Monaghan, 4/15/19.  “U.S. Postal Service Starts Testing Self-Driving Trucks: The 1,000-mile run between Phoenix and Dallas is part of a program aimed at making intercity mail transport less expensive and more efficient”, Jennifer Smith, 5/21/19. “The move comes as investors and vehicle makers are spending millions on trucking automation.” “Facebook Research is developing touchy-feely curious robots: We’re tantalizingly close to AI with all five senses”, Andrew Tarantola, 5/20/19.  “Robots Are Coming to Walmart and Making Employees Scared for Their Jobs”, Jennifer Calfas, Money, 4/12/19.  “Watch a Pack of Boston Dynamics’ Creepy Robot Dogs Pull a Truck: Spotmini isn’t just nimble, it’s super powerful, too”, Victor Tangermann, 4/16/19.  “In Video, Humanoid Robot Crosses Narrow Balance Beam Like A Cakewalk”, Peter Holley,  5/9/19.  “[T]he robot carefully moves across a series of narrow cinder blocks and a balance beam, revealing a degree of body control that many humans would struggle to maintain.”  “Miami’s flying car port is almost finished. And the flying cars are not far behind”, Rob Wile, 5/17/19.  Gwyn Topham, 5/16/19.  “A new “flying taxi” has been unveiled by German start-up Lilium, which claims the vertical take-off craft could be the basis for an on-demand air service within six years.”  “Robots Take the Wheel as Autonomous Farm Machines Hit the Field”, Ashley Robinson, Lydia Mulvany, and David Stringer, Bloomberg, 5/16/19. 

Robots are taking over farms faster than anyone saw coming.  The first fully autonomous farm equipment is becoming commercially available, which means machines will be able to completely take over a multitude of tasks. Tractors will drive with no farmer in the cab, and specialized equipment will be able to spray, plant, plow and weed cropland. And it’s all happening well before many analysts had predicted thanks to small startups in Canada and Australia.” “Robots Edge Closer to Unloading Trucks in Amazon-Era Milestone: New Siemens, Honeywell devices work at least as fast as people. ‘The job is miserable inside that trailer.’” Thomas Black, 5/3/19.  “AI is transforming humans into robots, right now”, Julia Limitone,  5/2/19.   “Google Spinoff’s Drone Delivery Business First to Get FAA Approval”, Alan Levin, 4/23/19. “For Lower-Paid Workers, the Robot Overlords Have Arrived: Software and algorithms are used to screen, hire, assign and now terminate workers”.  “Apple CEO [Tim Cook] tells college graduates: ‘We have failed you’ “, Sheila McClear, 5/20/19.  “Today, certain algorithms pull toward you the things that you already know, believe, or like, and they push away everything else. Push back!”

Fast Forward 2030: Large Scale Job, Fiscal and Social Disruption

David Barnhizer

Fast Forward 2030: The Future of Work and the Workplace concludes: “The next 15 years will see a revolution in how we work, and a corresponding revolution will necessarily take place on how we plan and think about workplaces.” [1]  Fast Forward adds:

“Artificial intelligence will transform businesses and the work that people do. Process work, customer work and vast swathes of middle management will simply disappear. [One key conclusion of the Report is that][n]early 50 percent of occupations today will no longer exist in 2025. New jobs will require creative intelligence, social and emotional intelligence and ability to leverage artificial intelligence.” [2] 

The researchers behind Fast Forward 2030 are far from alone in their predictions.[3] Something is happening that is transforming the world of work and destroying human jobs across a wide and diverse spectrum while shrinking the middle class on which strong democracies depend. One recent prediction states a “disruptive tidal wave” in the workplace will begin by 2021.  Brian Hopkins of the market research company Forrester warns: “Solutions powered by AI/cognitive technology will displace jobs, with the biggest impact felt in transportation, logistics, customer service and consumer services.”[4]

The Forrester analysis adds: “These robots, or intelligent agents, represent a set of AI-powered systems that can understand human behavior and make decisions on our behalf. … For now, they are quite simple, but over the next five years they will become much better at making decisions on our behalf in more complex scenarios.”[5]

Although the seminal 2013 report by Oxford researchers Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, The Future of Employment, focuses on the loss of repetitive low-skilled jobs, no area of work is sacrosanct.[6] Work opportunities are being eliminated from the most “intellectual” activities down to the basic areas of services and labor.  Some analysts predict that fifty percent of jobs currently done by humans could disappear in the next ten years.[7] One US-based study predicts the loss of 12,000,000 American jobs in less than ten years.  Another projects a six percent permanent US job loss just within the next half-decade.[8]   The 2016 World Economic Forum projected that 5,000,000 jobs could be lost in major developed nation economies by as soon as 2020 due to automation.[9]

The Frey and Osborne report includes the almost de rigeur claim that other jobs will be created to replace what is lost.  To a limited extent that is true and the issue of what jobs will remain, which will have the highest priority, and what new forms of work will be created is discussed in the final chapters of Contagion.  But the critical point is that far fewer jobs for humans will exist, regardless of what they are. Of course some new jobs will come into being such as “robot monitoring professionals, data scientists, automation specialists, and content curators” but they won’t fill the emerging job and skill competencies gaps. [10]

The problem with The Future of Employment’s optimistic assessment is that the future is coming sooner than anticipated.  Some of those “higher level” or “customer-oriented” roles are already being filled by AI/robotic systems, with more to come. An almost amusing example is found in an Italian hotel that is testing Softbank’s Pepper robot as a concierge and receiving good reviews. Pepper, a visually unthreatening humanoid robotic model, is also being incorporated into customer work with insurance clients in Japan. 

One report indicates: “SoftBank’s Pepper robot, which is currently available in Japan costing 198,000 yen (£1,220), is close to what Asus is looking to offer, with articulated arms, cameras and sensors in a head and a screen on its chest….” [11] Use of robots as nursing home assistants and assisted living and home care workers is close enough that the claims that such jobs will be secure for future human employment are a delusional mirage.  Softbank is also deploying its Pepper robot in insurance work, using it to explain relatively simple options to consumers.[12]  Not stopping there, an Associated Press report describes how an Italian resort is experimenting with “Robby Pepper” as a concierge.  Initial reactions are positive.  The AP report relates:

“Robby Pepper can answer questions in Italian, English and German. Billed as Italy’s first robot concierge, the humanoid will be deployed all season at a hotel on the popular Lake Garda to help relieve the desk staff of simple, repetitive questions.  During one of Robby’s first shifts, Mihail Slanina, a guest from Moldova, congratulated the robot on his skills.  “He’s like a real person, he’s really good,” she enthused. “He talks, he shook my hand.” ” [i]

The Japanese appear to be more comfortable with robots than other cultures and a diverse variety are being used to assist Japan’s large elderly population in assisted living facilities.  China has reportedly developed a child-friendly babysitter robot currently for sale for $1400.  A consequence of China’s “one child” per family limit is that children generally lack brothers or sisters and this robot is designed to fill the “companionship gap”.  The report indicates:

“It speaks two languages, gives math lessons, tells jokes and interacts with children through the tablet screen in its chest—China’s latest robot is the babysitter every parent needs.  … The humanoid device stands as tall as a five-year-old, moves and dances on wheels and its eyes keep track of its charges through facial recognition technology. Parents can also remotely talk to and monitor the children through the iPal, which is linked to a smartphone app that allows them to see and hear everything. “The idea for this robot is to be a companion for children,” said Tingyu Huang, co-founder of AvatarMind Robot Technology. “When a child sees it, he or she will think of the robot as a friend, as another child in the family.” …  AvatarMind will soon launch another robot that can talk to seniors, remind them to take their pills and call the hospital when they fall.  Beijing has invested money and manpower in developing AI as part of its “Made in China 2025″ plan.” [14]

The development of “friendly” humanoid robotic aides and companions is just one sign that millions of jobs thought to be reserved for human workers will be taken by increasingly sophisticated AI/robotics systems. While some new types of jobs for humans will be created and others preserved, there is only so much “room in the tent”.  Far too many people will be left out in the cold because the new AI/robotic technologies are “force multipliers” that allow us to do much more with less while other AI/robotics systems replace human services altogether. There simply will not be the same need for human workers that we would wish or need if we are to maintain a healthy society.

We have already seen a shift away from agriculture and manufacturing jobs previously filled by human workers and, as more jobs become automated, many repetitive and low-skilled jobs will vanish or shrink to occupy specialized niches.[15]  The expanding development of robotic farming systems has particular implications not only for US immigration policy and what to do with several million migrants who enter the nation to work in agricultural employment, but for developing economies heavily dependent on agriculture for their economic development. [16]

Given that we are in a society where many people are mainly or solely qualified to work in those “repetitive, low-skilled” jobs and are unlikely to suddenly develop the ability to do higher end innovative, technical, scientific and conceptual work, the inevitability of massive job loss on the basic levels of work poses an extreme challenge.[17]  A fundamental issue is what do we do with millions of people who have lost the opportunity to engage in the only types of work for which they are qualified or capable? 

[1] “Fast Forward 2030: The Future of Work and the Workplace”,CBRE. And

[2] “Fast Forward 2030: The Future of Work and the Workplace”,

[3] “The [Obama] Administration’s Report on the Future of Artificial Intelligence”, 10/12/16, Ed Felten and Terah Lyons.

[4]  “Robots will eliminate 6% of all US jobs by 2021, report says:  Employees in fields such as customer service and transportation face a ‘disruptive tidal wave’ of automation in the not-too-distant future”, Olivia Solon, 9/13/16.

[5] Solon, “Robots will eliminate 6% of all US jobs by 2021,” id.

[6]  Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?” 9/13/13.  

[7]  “2 Billion Jobs to Disappear by 2030”, 2/3/12:  Date Modified:  9/4/16.

[8]  “The robots set to disrupt white collar work”, Luke Graham, 7/7/16.

[9]  “10,000 jobs could be lost to robots says Citi”, 6/12/18..”

[10] Graham, “Robots Set to Disrupt”, id.


[12] “Pepper robot gets new job selling insurance”, 7/21/16.  “Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance Co. has announced plans to deploy 100 Pepper robots, made by SoftBank Group Corp., at its 80 branches in October. Pepper will explain insurance products and services, and accompany sales people on their rounds.  … Pepper will explain comparatively simple, reasonably priced insurance products in customer service areas at branch offices.”

[13]  “Italy’s robot concierge a novelty on the way to better AI”,

Colleen Barry and Charlene Pele, 4/2/18. 

[14]  “ ‘iPal’ robot companion for China’s lonely children”, Kelly Wang, 6/14/18.

[15] Charlotte Seager, “After the robot revolution, what will be left for our children to do?” 5/11/16.

[16] “Now Cropping Up: Robo-Farming: Agricultural-equipment makers gear up driverless tractors, combines in quest to produce more food, more sustainably”. Vibhuti Agarwal, 6/1/18.

[17]For one example, see, “Next Leap for Robots: Picking Out and Boxing Your Online Order: Developers close in on systems to move products off shelves and into boxes, as retailers aim to automate labor-intensive process”, Brian Baskin, 7/23/17.