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Augmentation a better approach than automation for AI

Fears that robots will replace human workers grow as technologists create new tools that imitate what humans do. Instead, industries should focus on using AI to complement humans.

As enterprises find more uses for AI technology, fears that the technology could supplant human employees grow.

AI has become so pervasive in so many industries that its spread amounts to an invasion for some critics of how AI technology is used and its capacity to take over human workers' jobs.

With language models such as Dall-E arguably threatening the jobs of artists and illustrators, fast-food chains using AI in drive-throughs, and contact centers turning to automated bots instead of human agents, AI can have tangible consequences for employees whose jobs are partially or fully automated.

While recent economic developments such as nationwide low unemployment rates have buttressed the arguments of automation proponents who say AI is needed to fill jobs no one wants, critics say the better approach is to use AI to augment or complement workers, as some fast-food chains have claimed they are doing.

"If you have a machine that closely imitates humans, then that makes human labor superfluous," said Erik Brynjolfsson, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI and director of the Stanford Digital Economy Lab. "Having machines that mostly imitate humans lowers wages; having machines that augment humans raises wages.

If you have a machine that closely imitates humans, then that makes human labor superfluous.
Erik BrynjolfssonSenior fellow, Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI

Speaking on Nov. 2 during a Brookings Institution expert Q&A session about the peril and promise of humanlike AI, Brynjolfsson said that while both approaches can help commerce, augmentation in particular fosters creativity because human-technology collaboration enables the creation of new technologies.

Instead of creating a model that does exactly what a human does, it's more creative to think of a new technology that will help humans with their jobs instead of taking jobs away.

"The bigger value comes from creating an entirely new thing that never existed before," Brynjolfsson said.

Jobs no one wants to do

The coronavirus pandemic spurred many workers to reexamine their economic value and look to find better and more rewarding careers. Even now, many industries, especially hospitality, lack workers. In some cases, automation has been helpful in filling those gaps where human labor is needed.

But the economic consequences of automating with AI run deeper than AI taking over a job nobody wants, said Barry Devlin, analyst at 9sight.

For example, with advancements in autonomous vehicle technology, some people imagine the day when a truck driver is no longer needed behind the wheel of the truck.

However, truck drivers will not be the only workers affected if their jobs are replaced by AI. Hotels and motels, fast-food restaurants, and other businesses that truck drivers frequent during their hauls will also be affected by a reduction in truck driving jobs.

"There's a whole ecosystem around that particular job," Devlin said. "If we replace them all with AI, that's going to be, I think, a significant impact."

Automation could also mean a greater chance for bias in fields such as medicine, insurance and real estate, he said.

"There's a lot I believe that can be done with AI and with algorithms that essentially can be discriminatory against people of color, people of age groups [or] certain gender orientations," Devlin said.

Meanwhile, having a human involved to augment the AI technology could keep those biases at bay. "It's about making sure that people maintain control," he said.

Contributing to society

Using AI to augment or complement human jobs could lead to a fairer distribution of wealth in the economy, according to Brynjolfsson.

"The imitation or substitution approach tends to have most wealth concentrated [for] capital owners, whereas the augmenting tends to have the wealth widely distributed," he said.

Instead of trying to find ways to make machines do the work of humans, it's better to find ways that humans and machines can work together so that humans can continue to contribute to society, he continued.

Brynjolfsson said that instead of looking toward a future in which machines take over work, we should strive to fill the roles we have now.

"We're not running out of work. Let's go ahead and make sure that everybody wants to contribute to society," he said.

While some vendors focus on automation, others such as Cresta seek to make humans and machines partners, Brynjolfsson said. Cresta's AI technology gives advice to call center agents as they are speaking to customers. Another vendor that does this is Wingman, he noted.

"By augmenting the human in this way ... there's higher customer satisfaction [and] higher throughput," Brynjolfsson said. "It turns out to be much more effective than the machine alone."

Not impeding progress

Proponents of automation argue that it is critical to the progress of technology, especially as the U.S. races against China to become the leader in AI.

Moreover, tax laws favor automation due to heavy taxes on labor, which means many technologists don't have the incentive to augment instead of automate, Brynjolfsson said. Providing incentives that would reward technologists when they augment instead of automate would make it easier for them to lean away from using AI to imitate human actions instead of complement them.

"I don't want to stop automation," Brynjolfsson said. "What I'd like to do is increase augmentation and restore a little bit of a balance so that we do them equally."

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