Monday, March 6, 2017

Robots and Artificial Intelligence - Coming After YOUR Job Soon?

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on......................"

There is underway an inexorable march in the confluence of Artificial Intelligence, Automation, Software and Robotics and the future of that progress will  impact everything from jobs and the economy to the very survival of the species.

Apart from the warnings by many of tech and science's best minds (click here for that analysis) of the existential threat to human existence from the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) that may progress so quickly and so profoundly that it surpasses the very ability of the human brain to even understand it, with the possible ultimate consequence that AI will at some point simply make decisions based on its calculations that may consider human beings as either part of a problem or simply irrelevant in the mix - the more immediate impact will be on the economy, jobs and the way society organizes work.  Indeed that inevitability, which started long ago on simple terms, has now gained enough momentum that there are predictions that thirty, forty or even fifty percent of all the jobs that exist today may, at the least be substantially altered and impacted by AI and its handmaidens, or even replaced entirely by machines in the next twenty years.

In the short term, the jobs that involve predictable and repetitive work will be eliminated, and other jobs will see an an increasing portion of their work done by machines and programs.  It would be a grievous mistake to think that only assembly line kinds of jobs are at risk, as many white collar, and even creative jobs, will be impacted as well.

Decades ago the automated gas pump rendered needless those service station employees who use to do that for you, and the thousands of those for whom that was a job had to find some other employment (and most of you will not remember when you drove into a gas station, and the attendant pumped your gas, washed your windows, checked your oil and the tire pressure).  Today, self driving vehicles are getting very close to putting all the truck, bus, and taxi drivers - and there are millions of them - out of work.  And beyond those soon to be unemployed people, the self driving vehicles will impact related industries as well.  As they will be safer, thus reducing accidents, the auto coverage segment of the insurance industry will likely collapse and with it those jobs too.  There is a domino effect at play here.

There are numerous reports and articles that robots, software programming and the advances of AI have already begun to erode the need for humans to fill a variety of jobs beyond the manufacturing jobs that robots are already doing (e.g., the auto industry); everything from accounting and finance jobs, to doctors to lawyers, and that in the next ten to twenty years huge segments of people now employed in various areas will lose their jobs to the machines.

Many industries will be more vulnerable and susceptible to early job elimination - manufacturing for example.  But many others are clearly in the crosshairs.  Consider the hospitality industry - smart (AI) robots and software are already managing the reservation system, checking in guests at the front desk, tending to housekeeping cleaning, food preparation and delivery and more.   Arts administration as a field will not be immune.

In the past, technological advances eliminated some jobs, but created new ones in their place, and the benefits to society as a whole were substantial.  Today, that may still hold true - for awhile.  But experts are cautioning that many jobs will cease to exist - and in just the next two decades or so.  Whether this turns out to be a boon for humanity or a disaster is yet unknown.

So how will that impact the arts, and in particular, arts administrators?  While we would like to think that as we deal with creativity, much of what we do simply cannot be replaced by machines, there is even speculation that the machines will ultimately, on a human scale, create art - from plays to paintings to dance and beyond.  And while artists and art are likely to, for a long time and probably forever, remain a human endeavor, (machines won't for some time be capable of understanding human aspirations, dreams and ideas), eventually AI may master those human facets too.  What seems clear is that many arts administration functions are in those job categories of the first to go - in whole or in part.  And I say in part, because initially we will all use more sophisticated software and programming, then robots and finally AI to help us do our jobs better and faster.  And that will mean fewer of us necessary to do even more work.  At some point, we will be less and less crucial in that mix, and jobs now filled by us - will go to the machines.

Which arts administration jobs are likely to require only minimal human oversight and involvement in the near term (next ten to twenty years)?  Any job that is predictable and repetitive is likely vulnerable.  But that's only the beginning.  Consider the following jobs in our field:

1.  Financial - Accounting, bookkeeping, reports, taxes, budgets, money management.  All of these functions can now be done more efficiently by software, and when you add in AI (especially as it develops the capacity for self-learning)  it won't be long at all before there is no need for any arts organization to employ anyone in any financial area, except maybe one person to manage the systems.

2.  Marketing -  software married to AI will be able to determine the best and most effective marketing strategies for each individual organization - everything from which approaches are likely to work best; what messages optimize results; and how, where, when and to whom to send those messages on an individual case by case basis, based on data analysis and projections - And advertising, and public relations will likely go to the machines as well.  Eventually, AI will allow for customized, individualized marketing campaigns and strategies to be developed and managed by software and AI.

3.  Fundraising - from grantwriting to donor solicitation to keeping the patrons happy.  AI advances will be particularly useful in this area and people will no longer be necessary to do much more than manage the overall systems.  The systems will identify the most likely sources of cash flow, donations and support, make the most effective solicitations, coddle and nurture the donors and keep everyone happy.  Some human contact will, of course, still be essential - but far less than we might hope.  Perhaps those providing the funding will still make the "human" decisions, but perhaps even philanthropic decisions on fund allocation will be machine territory.

4.  Authorship - including grantwriting, reports, proposals, strategic plans, evaluations, annual reports, press releases etc. - is an area that software programs can already do, and when combined with AI, these jobs will no longer need to be filled by humans.  This includes blogs, newsletters, thank you notes, advocacy communications and more.

5.  Programming - creation, management and evaluation will all eventually be something software programs and AI can do at our bidding.  It may be a conceit to think only we will be able to deal with the creative aspects of programming.

6.  Research and Data Collection / Analysis - including even formation of what questions to ask to frame the research. Software combined with AI is very likely to completely take over this kind of work, combining the ability to both manage data collection and to synthesize and analyze data results, then write reports and make recommendations.  And do so at a far more sophisticated depth and light years quicker than we do it today.

7.  Creative Functions - there is where robotics will likely come in to our arena.  From set, lighting and costume design, to staging, from curation to exhibition  - and perhaps as far as play and script writing to choreography.  Many of these creative functions might well be done (at least in part) by machines in the future - in combination with human beings or in place of them.

So if you work in any of these areas, your job may, at the very least, undergo profound changes in the next decade or two.  It's entirely possible it may simply disappear.

The impact of all this will have profound effect on our sector. - and quicker than anyone might imagine.  In some ways, we will be able to do more for less money.  And for some time employment of early AI and robotic options will likely be expensive; too expensive given that the supply of humans who can do the job will exceed the number of jobs.  But at some point the cost will make the option affordable to all, and that may entail the elimination of the jobs of a lot of people.  Even those positions not eliminated, may see banishment to the "gig" economy sector - at far less remuneration.

What do we do?

1.  First, we need to understand how the possibilities of the roll out of AI and robotics will happen and its speed, and be realistic about how it might impact us.  We can ill afford to ignore developments that will impact our ability to be competitive and to survive on limited income.  We don't yet know whether wholesale elimination of jobs in the wider culture will result in increased leisure time for people (which might be good for us) or whether those job eliminations will result in fewer people being able to afford to sample our wares and support our work.  Those are larger societal questions that we need to monitor.

2.  Second, we need to understand how partial employment of the new technology will interact with the already ubiquitous gig economy, and affect our jobs and the way we organize our work, as well as our budgetary processes.

3.  Third, as a consequence, we need to rethink professional development and arts administration degree education.  It is probably incumbent on the field to consider how quick and wide technology based job elimination may happen, and revamp and rethink our arts administration professional development and degree programs that today are very likely teaching a number of skills that will be filled by machines and programs and no longer necessary from human beings.  Training people to do what will no longer be needed from them will be an incredible waste of time and resources.  There may already be an oversupply of professionals given the demand for their services, and we need to grapple with the question of encouraging an increase in the supply of arts administrators for which there may be no gainful employment.  And as software programs, AI and machines do more and more of the work, what new skills will we need to adapt and manage that process.  What new skills will be needed to both survive and thrive.  Very likely the concept of leadership will undergo changes.  We need to be prepared.

4.   Fourth, we need to understand how other sectors that can afford the new applications of AI and its impact on the ways of doing work (which we cannot) may pass us by.  To what extent will we be able to afford to be on the cutting edge, and to what extent will our competitiveness in the marketplace suffer if we are left at the starting gate?

5.  Fifth, we need to understand the potential opportunities for art and possible new jobs as AI becomes increasingly threatening and there is a backlash.

6.  And finally, we need to imagine how art will play a role in how AI is developed across the spectrum.  Artists will have a major role to play in the vision of the future, and we will have a role to play in nurturing and facilitating that vision.

For the future, the entire relationship between the arts and our sector and the intersections art has with technology, science, education and work ought to be a subject around which we organize conferences, summits, dialogues and thought sessions.  Conversations at those tables will happen, and we need to have a seat at them.

I don't pretend to know the future, but despite the warnings of those who fear the existential consequences of unbridled growth of AI (and I, for one, am alarmed), that genie is out of the bottle and will likely now continue to grow at frightening rates.  It will impact jobs, and some of those jobs will be ours.  It may also be an existential threat to our future.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit


  1. A few weeks ago several folks wrote essays on their ArtsJournal blogs answering the question of arts leadership's role or responsibility in the declining relevance of the arts. In her essay, Diane Ragsdale asked,

    "Consider the driving emphasis on instilling arts institutional leaders with business skills since 1960; the now mandatory requirements of a track record of raising money and delivering box office hits (that will fill Broadway-sized venues) to attain the job of artistic director at a major theater; the lack of artists on nonprofit boards, or even many individuals with an aesthetic sensibility; and the dramatic power shift from artist-leaders to business-leaders, generally.

    Maybe we have been breeding, or weeding, artistic leadership out of the field?"

    I find it especially interesting that all the business oriented 'skills' you list as replaceable by an artificial intelligence are precisely the qualifications that have been promoted in the arts leadership, and which are perhaps themselves responsible for the arts being less and less relevant.

    Is this our problem? We have made the arts function specifically as a business, and the better they are at business the more 'successful' we deem them to be? And if we imagine the arts only as a business requiring most importantly business specific skills, we have laid the groundwork precisely for more 'efficient' and 'effective' administration? By making arts administration an instrumental concern are we not, in fact, begging to be taken over by artificial intelligence? Is it the case when the arts are best represented as a business they are also best administered by other than human beings? Have we somehow lost our handle on the *humanity* of the arts themselves in conceiving them in these rational deducible terms?

    I am not an MBA, so I don't know specifically what values the arts leadership are driven by, but I am an artist and I was trained as a philosopher. One thing I have noticed among arts leaders is a reliance on instrumental values. Cause and effect are the persuasive relationships, and value in the arts is often conceived as a sort of causality: The arts 'are good for' the economy, the arts benefit cognitive development, etc. And viewing the arts as a business also seems to put the arts in measurable instrumental terms: 'Success' is quantifiable.

    All this instrumental calculation is exactly what an artificial intelligence is good at. It computes. The area that AI does not do well at is the specifically human aspect of intrinsic value, the "Why?" questions that human life is centered around. These are not factual questions that are answerable by science, they are the human questions that are framed within the systems of human motivation and value. And as long as we limit ourselves to thinking about the arts instrumentally we will never get a handle on the "Why?" questions. An arts leadership that can only think in terms of instrumentality perhaps deserves to be replaced with the more efficient artificial intelligence. When the arts leadership gives up the human part of its mandate it turns out to be much worse at those remaining tasks than a digital computing administrator.....

    Doesn't this tell us that somewhere along the line the arts have been sold out? And what we gave up to become more 'successful' as businesses is precisely what made the arts important as a human endeavor?

    It seems worth thinking about, at least....

    1. The arts are a still a business. Jobs are the issue. AI and robotics threaten to replace people with machines and programs.