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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Life in 2028: how advances in AI could change our lives for the better - and worse

The National's Jonathan Gornall looks at how life as we know it could be dramatically different in just a few years

Sophia, a robot with Saudi Arabian citizenship, is pictured as she interacts during the innovation fair in Kathmandu, Nepal March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar
Sophia, a robot with Saudi Arabian citizenship, is pictured as she interacts during the innovation fair in Kathmandu, Nepal March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

It’s the sound of one of her favourite songs, playing quietly on her personalised radio station, that wakes her. As she stretches and yawns, the blinds, sensitive to her still-surfacing consciousness, ease open slowly to allow just enough sunlight into the apartment.

“It’s 9.25am on a beautiful Dubai morning, Fatima,” says the disembodied voice of Simon, her virtual assistant.

“It’s April 7, 2028, and it’s 33C and climbing out there. Oh, and happy birthday.”

She smiles. She’d chosen his British accent because it reminded her of the happy six months she’d spent studying data-analysis and algorithm design at the University of Oxford Online.

“Have you remembered you’re meeting Sayeed and Kelly at the mall at 10.30am?” Simon asks.

As her feet touch the bedroom floor Fatima hears the satisfying sound of the coffee machine starting up in the kitchen. She walks to the picture window and the blinds open fully.

She loves the UAE, to which her family moved from Iraq when she was only five years old, and she never tires of the breathtaking view of the city from the 28th floor of her apartment building on Dubai Creek. A few storeys below, a patrolling neighbourhood police drone drifts past.

As she walks past the open bedroom door she sees the robo-cleaner gliding over the tiled floor of the living room.

The lift, summoned by Simon, is waiting for her as she leaves the apartment. In the foyer she waves to the virtual concierge, which is busy cleaning the floor and watering the plants.

Fatima still misses Abdul and glances across at the abandoned front desk and the old office chair, lying on its side behind it, where he used to sit.

The flying taxi is seen in Dubai, United Arab Emirates September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Satish Kumar
The flying taxi is seen in Dubai. Satish Kumar / Reuters

Outside she climbs into the waiting driverless electric pod and settles into one of the plush seats for the 10-minute journey to the mall. Joining the highway, the pod merges seamlessly with the hundreds of others, travelling in perfect formation at a steady 70 km/h.

It’s been five years since the last vehicles driven by humans disappeared from the city’s roads. Traffic lights and traffic police – and congestion, speeding fines, parking tickets, Salik and road deaths – are a thing of the past. Fatima doesn’t miss her car, or the cost of keeping it, but she does occasionally wonder what happened to that sweet little Pakistani man who used to clean it.

She can, just about, remember travelling on the Metro, a novelty she’d loved as a child, but which now is used only by the few manual workers still left in the city. Robots have taken over most of the construction jobs.

The pod stops at the mall entrance nearest to where she’s arranged to meet her friends.

In the mall, a hover-sedan approaches and offers to carry her. Fatima is tempted but waves it off – she needs the exercise.

A man walks past the world's first autonomous pods which was launched by the Roads and Transport Authority of Dubai in Dubai, United Arab Emirates February, 28, 2018. Picture taken February, 28, 2018. REUTERS/Satish Kumar - RC1BA7C68C00
A man walks past the world's first autonomous pods which was launched by the Roads and Transport Authority of Dubai. Satish Kumar / Reuters

On her way to meet Sayeed and Kelly she ducks into her favourite clothes shop.

“Show me that new floral summer dress that’s on offer,” she says. The virtual assistant makes small-talk, while the display robot brings the item to the front of the rack. Fatima wonders how things worked out for that nice Filipina girl – what was her name? – who used to work here.

“Okay, thanks, I’ll take it,” she says, and hurries out of the shop. The system knows her size.

Whether this vision of a Dubai just ten years from now strikes you as utopian or dystopian, there seems little doubt that, give or take the odd robot, it’s an unstoppable reality hurtling down the track.

The only question, as a new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development makes clear, is exactly how many and what type of jobs will be swept away by the rising tide of artificial intelligence (AI) that is about to engulf the world.

At first glance the OECD report brings good news. Fewer people are going to find themselves out of work as a result of AI and automation than previous studies have claimed, it says.

The risk of automation is concentrated on low-skilled jobs such as cleaners. Those preparing food are also at risk. Assemblers and agricultural labourers, were included, as is essentially anyone involved in basic clerical work. But that's an improvement on previous estimates.

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In 2013 researchers at the Department of Engineering Science at Oxford University caused shockwaves when they estimated that 47 per cent of all jobs in the US, and 35 per cent in the UK, were likely to disappear over the next 20 years. The rest of the world, they said, faced employment carnage on a similar scale.

But not so, says the OECD, whose mission is “to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world”. Only 10 per cent of jobs in the US, and 12 per cent in the UK, it insists, are at risk.

So most of us can breathe a sigh of relief?

Absolutely not, says Calum Chace, an Oxford philosopher who speaks and writes extensively about artificial intelligence.

“All the OECD has done is take the original work Oxford did, riff on it and make different assumptions,” says the author of Surviving AI and his new book, The Economic Singularity.

“To come out with a confident report saying there’s no need for anybody to worry, that it’s all going to be okay, is foolish and irresponsible, because the elephant in the room is that we just don’t know.”

Take automated cars.

It was only in 2007 that DARPA, the US defence research agency, staged the first competition for vehicles operated by artificial intelligence, offering a $1 million prize for traversing a 240km route in the Mojave Desert. The best performer, a converted Humvee, managed just 11.78 km before getting stuck on a rock.

But a decade on – and highly publicised but statistically insignificant crashes notwithstanding – self-driving cars are doing a much better job than humans and Dubai is already trialing autonomous electric pods.

“No one really saw that coming 20 years ago,” says Mr Chace. “But the reality is that machines are getting smarter much faster than we expected.”

Certain jobs, he says, are already obviously doomed – drivers, retail and call-centre staff will disappear relatively soon. Other jobs will be replaced by machines, he says, “when it is economical to do so. Once somebody cracks how to make a machine that can flip a burger, 100 per cent reliably and much better and cheaper than a human, simple economics will make all burger joints use it, because otherwise they’ll go broke.”

But trying to figure out exactly which jobs will go, and precisely when, “is a mug’s game, because we just don’t know. We have to do it, of course, to try to make sense of what’s happening and to plan, but we will probably be wrong.”

In a sense, he says, what happens over the next five years or so doesn’t matter.

“The big question is will AI over the course of a generation eliminate most jobs or create lots of new ones, or is it going to stay roughly the same?”

His view is that “there is a very strong likelihood that many more jobs will be eliminated than created and we need to prepare for that”.

Economists – or, perhaps, the machines that could replace them – have their work cut out: “A world where machines do all the jobs could be a world where humans do more important things, like playing, learning and having fun, but paying for that is going to be tricky.”

There is a danger that, as the working rich grow richer and the unemployable poor slip deeper into poverty, social cohesion will break down, and social instability will follow.

“Dubai probably won’t suffer at all, because it’s got this relief valve – it can send loads of people home,” says Mr Chace, who attended the World Government Summit in the city in February and was impressed by the UAE’s determination to be a leader in the fields of AI and automation.

“But the countries they go back to probably will suffer, and that’s why we have to figure out how to run economies in which most or many people are not able to work.” We are, he says, “going to have to separate income from jobs and we don’t know how to do that at the moment”.

On the ride home from the mall, Fatima is listening to music, trying to decide which restaurant to book for her 30th birthday celebration this evening, when the menu she’s studying on the pod’s screen suddenly flickers and disappears. It’s replaced by the logo of the General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs.

“Good afternoon, Fatima,” says a strange but sympathetic-sounding voice.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you that as of 08.00am hours tomorrow all data analysis and programming functions in your department will be automated. As a result, your work residency permit has been cancelled and you have 30 days to leave the UAE. Happy birthday.”