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Player Piano forte? The debate on the implications of artificial intelligence and robotics for employment

Authors: Michael Samers*, University Of Kentucky
Topics: Economic Geography, Social Geography, Social Theory
Keywords: artificial intelligence, robotics, employment, work, labor
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The year is 2017, and it is the height of panic over the future of employment in light of the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. A disagreement emerges in the popular media between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg (what I call the Musk-Zuckerberg ‘spat’). Essentially, Musk contends that we are doomed in the ‘race against the machine’ while Zuckerberg labels Musk’s remarks as ‘irresponsible’. Using content and discourse analysis, the purpose of my paper is not to somehow ‘predict the future’ but to examine the relationship between the popular business media, ‘gray’ reports from business consultants or government agencies, and the academic literature on the relationship between AI, robotics, and employment. What I find is three-fold. First, this ‘spat’ between two notorious technology ‘experts’ seems to mirror the wider views of the popular business media on the implications of AI/robotics. Second, while some might label such media as broadly alarmist, its views on the effects of AI/robotics on employment are far more nuanced, consistent with the theoretical perspectives of academic economists from which it frequently draws. Third, the academic economic literature on the effects of AI/robotics is primarily sanguine, rather than negative. This hardly diverges from the empirical findings of the inter-disciplinary literature on ‘the post-human’ and employment, but both literatures arrive at similar conclusions from very different epistemological starting points. Ultimately, this paper shows how the ‘future is performed’, involving a nuanced dialogue between the popular media, the gray literature, and specific forms of academic theory.

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