While technology and labour experts agree that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will push at least a third of the global workforce into joblessness, a new study suggests this will not be economically viable to employers anytime soon.
Recent studies by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), International Labour Organisation (ILO), and the World Economic Forum (WEF) all show that as AI becomes more mainstream across the globe, millions of people will lose their jobs to it, although the level of exposure is different across occupations and regions.
However, new research by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reveals that although several tasks can be taken over by AI models, thereby pushing people out of work, it will not be economically sensible to replace humans with AI for a vast majority of those tasks.
The study done in the US found that of all tasks exposed to AI, only 23 percent are “economically attractive” for firms to actually automate, meaning that only a few tasks will be cheaper to have AI execute instead of humans.
The study assessing the cost-effectiveness of automating several tasks currently done by humans. It estimated how much it would cost to deploy AI systems to carry out each task and compared with the current wage rate for the exposed tasks.
The study’s analysis concluded that at the current cost of AI systems, it would not be cost-efficient for businesses in the US to automate 77 percent of the tasks currently exposed to AI automation.
“Even if a system only costs $1,000, there are tasks that are not economically attractive to replace; tasks in occupations with low wages, many different tasks per occupation, working in small firms,” the study concluded.
In the US, the minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour for the lowest paying jobs, and the study suggests it is much cheaper to pay actual people to complete tasks than deploy AI systems.
Comparatively, the legal minimum hourly wage rate in East Africa is much lower, even less than $1 for some jobs, an indication that AI may be much costlier for firms in the region and will take even much longer to replace workers.
In Kenya, the lowest earners in the capital, Nairobi, c get just $0.83 (Ksh135.90) per hour, which is estimated to be much cheaper than it would cost to deploy AI to take up some of these jobs.
Based on a recent WEF study, the jobs that will most likely be replaced by AI systems are those that involve administrative or clerical activities, database design, data analysis, monitoring of external affairs, trends or events, information sourcing, and documentation of procedures, trends or activities.
Jobs at risk
According to the MIT research, jobs in the retail trade, healthcare and logistics are relatively more exposed to AI automation and a little more cost-effective than others, but still less than 0.25 percent of the tasks across the occupations will be affected.
The MIT study projects that it will not be possible to profitably deploy AI to replace humans in the foreseeable future for majority of tasks unless the cost of AI systems drops significantly.
“Over time, changes in the cost of AI systems or the scale at which they are deployed have the potential to increase automation,” the study concluded.
To make AI automation more economically sensible, the study suggests finding innovative ways to make AI systems do more with less investments, and “inventing less expensive ways to build AI systems.”
Meanwhile, an audience member was ejected from a Sundance festival event on January 23 in a spat over AI, triggering a walkout that illustrates divisions the technology has rapidly wrought in the film industry.
AI — a key driver of the recent and devastating Hollywood strikes — has been debated extensively at this year's Indie movie festival in Utah.
Filmmakers have experimented with using the technology as a creative tool, while also cautioning about its potential to erase jobs and stifle human expression and connection.
At a Tuesday screening of Being (The Digital Griot), in which audience members were encouraged to approach the screen and discuss issues like racism and the patriarchy with an AI bot, an audience member appeared to shout profanity about AI.
Festival staff forced the woman who had yelled to leave the auditorium, prompting jeers.
But the incident highlighted long-brewing and sharply escalating tensions triggered by the issue of AI in the film world —something that this year's Sundance lineup was specifically programmed to address.
"Love Machina" director Peter Sillen said AI could soon mean that making a film will be a similar process to writing a novel. "You'll somebody who's sitting in their room create a masterpiece of filmmaking, probably," he said. The idea was "hard and scary" but "interesting," Sillen said, concluding: "I think you have to be open to it."
The danger that AI could replace screenwriters, actors and other professions was a key sticking point in last year’s Hollywood strikes, with unions holding out for guarantees from studios that they would not be replaced.
"Eternal You" director Hans Block pointed out that AI is already widely used in movies -- indeed, the Adobe software he used to edit the film is "full of AI" and "helped us as a tool a lot."
"It's so much more easy to make a film nowadays," he said.
But Block said that while AI can help as a tool, it is important to debate what harm could be caused if the technology is not regulated.
"That's why we are so happy to present the film right now, because it's a perfect time to open the debate about these discussions," he said.
The danger that AI could replace screenwriters, actors and other professions was a key sticking point in last year's Hollywood strikes, with unions holding out for guarantees from studios that they would not be replaced.
The encroachment of AI has sparked resolutely negative reactions from many filmmakers at Sundance.
Anirban Dutta, co-director of "Nocturnes," an experiential documentary about scientists studying moths in the eastern Himalayas, said his movie is "a response to what's happening to this world where all our human instincts are being mechanized."
"Our film is a love letter to invite people to come back to what we are losing... human touch," he said.
The woman who was thrown out of the "Being" screening, who has not been identified, was making a similar point before chaos erupted.
"As interesting as this (film) is... all of the knowledge it has comes from people," she said.
In addition to “Being,” the Sundance indie festival has hosted “Eternal You” and “Love Machina,” two documentaries about loved ones using AI to communicate after death.
Another film, “Eno,” explored musician Brian Eno’s career and creative process, using a “generative engine” to mesh together near-infinite different versions of a film from hundreds of possible scenes.
AI was also addressed on the fiction side by films like “Love Me,” starring Kristen Stewart, which imagined a romance between an AI-powered buoy and a satellite in a post-human world.
Additional reporting by AFP