TIAA CEO Roger Ferguson: Why You Shouldn't Panic About AI

TIAA is No. 27 on the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies list


(Originally published on LinkedIn)

Roger W. Ferguson, Jr.

When I speak to students on college campuses these days, there’s a question I get more and more, and it goes something like this: are robots going to take all the jobs one day

It’s no surprise that this is a rising concern. Everywhere you look, you see a headline about the advance of artificial intelligence (AI), often written in a way that can stoke anxiety. A recent article predicted that in just 40 years, robots will have put most of us out of a job. And I do mean “us.” Addressing CEOs specifically, the article warned “Sorry. Robots will run companies better than you do.” Ouch.

There’s no question that technological change is having a huge impact on our society and that a number of jobs now done by humans today will be done by machines in the future. But I tell students there’s no need to panic about a robot-dominated workforce.

It’s helpful to take a long-term view. Robots have been around for decades. It was 50 years ago that the first industrial robot was used on an assembly line in a General Motors plant in New Jersey. The field of AI dates back to 1956, but it has recently progressed rapidly, entering the public consciousness as it has become incorporated into our daily lives on smartphones (Siri and Google Now), in video games (characters that learn your behaviors and react in unpredictable ways), in online customer support (chat bots), and homes (smart devices that adjust thermostats and lighting).

I see AI as just the latest in a long line of technological breakthroughs that have transformed society. Developments like the electric light bulb and the steam engine moved the U.S. from its roots as an agricultural economy to an industrial economy. More recently, innovations like the personal computer, the Internet, and mobile phones have helped speed our transition from an industrial society to a global, digital age.

As part of this transition, the rise of robots, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are disrupting many different sectors. A recent McKinsey Global Institute report noted: “Cars that drive themselves, machines that read X-rays, and algorithms that respond to customer-service inquiries are all manifestations of powerful new forms of automation.” The report also stated that while less than 5 percent of all jobs today could actually be fully automated, about 60% of jobs have the potential to be at least partially automated. We are also likely to see the nature of many current types of jobs transform, as technology enables them to be done more efficiently and effectively.

It’s important to remember that the U.S. has undergone similar transitions before and that although they rendered certain types of jobs obsolete, they also gave rise to new jobs and new industries, many of which had been previously unimaginable. Today, we’ve already seen whole new classes of jobs arise, such as data scientists, professionals who collect, analyze, and interpret large amounts of data. In turn, as universities add degree programs in data science, we’re also seeing the rise of a new class of jobs in training people to become data scientists. McKinsey estimates that by 2030, up to 9 percent of jobs will be new types of occupations that have not existed before.

The challenge is that while we’re able to identify which job categories are likely to be most impacted by AI such as retail and transportation we don’t have a crystal ball that shows us all the new ones that will arise in tandem with the new technologies. As a society, we’ll need a slew of approaches to address the changes we’ll confront, including new training models, programs to ease worker transitions, and collaboration between business and higher education.

We must remain mindful that there are tasks that AI simply can’t do. Machines may be good at learning things by absorbing huge quantities of data, but they can’t replicate human interactions. You may not mind having a robot read your x-ray, but if it shows you have cancer, you certainly want an actual human being, preferably one with boundless empathy and understanding, to deliver the results and answer your questions.

So when students ask me about robots, I tell them to direct their focus and energy away from worry and toward the things they can control. First and foremost, they need a strong education, because it’s the foundation that will enable them to navigate whatever the 21st century may bring. They need to hone their critical thinking skills and their communication skills.

They need to know how to work effectively in teams. They must commit to becoming a lifetime learner, maintaining a mindset of curiosity and reading widely to keep pace with developments in our fast-moving world. They must approach their careers with an attitude of flexibility, ready to adapt to the changing workforce needs of the future. That uniquely human combination of knowledge, skills, and mindsets will prepare them for anything, in a way that no robot no matter how technologically advanced could ever match.

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