Middlemen watch out.

That's the message from a leading physicist and futurist to thousands of New Zealand's white-collar workers.

Michio Kaku is touring NZ for his latest book release entitled 'The Future of Humanity'.

With more than 12 books under his belt, the New York Times best-selling author has become renowned for his physics theories and technology forecasts, with his latest perspectives tackling the buzz around space travel and artificial intelligence (AI).

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Kaku's message broadly is that we have little to fear about AI for the moment, from a global domination or enslavement of the human race perspective.

But that doesn't mean he and many in his field think the AI revolution isn't set to rapidly overhaul not just how we live, but also how we work.

It's perhaps auspicious timing that we met Kaku to discuss his predictions for the kiwi workforce in the same week that ride-share startup Uber announced plans to resume testing its driverless vehicles on public roads.

This followed an 8-month stand down after one of the company's vehicles killed a pedestrian during a trial in Arizona.

For his part, Kaku forecasts a job apocalypse in the transportation sector which employs more than 90,000 full-time New Zealanders and produces around 5.4 per cent of the country's GDP.

Michio Kaku is touring NZ for his latest book release entitled 'The Future of Humanity'.
Michio Kaku is touring NZ for his latest book release entitled 'The Future of Humanity'.

Kaku explains that in the coming years the transportation sector will be entirely consumed by automation.

"Look we no longer have blacksmiths we no longer have wagon makers anymore but we don't cry about it. Now in the future the transportation industry will be eaten up by the robotics industry. The automobile will become a robot" says Kaku.

Jobs on the out aren't just limited to blue-collar gigs according to the physicist. Real estate agents and financiers are among a myriad of other middle-class professions also in the crosshairs of our robot overlords.

"The big losers are the middle-men. If you are a broker, if you are an agent, if you are somebody who simply looks up data like a paralegal in a law firm - watch out!," says Kaku.

"You're going to have to add something more to being a broker. You're going to have to add intellectual capital, know-how, experience. You're going to have to add innovation. Either you provide intellectual capital, or you're going to be bulldozed by artificial intelligence".

The global debate/ fear factor

The discussion around automation overtaking us in the workplace is by no means new. Go as far back as 1811 England where a group of weavers ascended in protest with pitchforks and spades to the seat of the King.

They were protesting a move by industrialists installing machinery in production plants to eliminate what at the time were considered high-paying jobs. Before taking their protest to the monarch, the weavers destroyed the machines.

The weavers would later be branded "luddites", a term that within today's dot-com era has taken on a defamatory tone. Naturally the protest did little to slow technical evolution.

The reality of today's AI revolution is that it has created more jobs than it has eliminated. That doesn't mean people's fears aren't justified though, according to University of Auckland Professor Elizabeth George who studies the casualization of labour as a result of tech products like Uber.

Everything from taxis to food production and education is rife for disruption according to George. She however argues that much of the fear of technological change, just like in the times of the luddites is about economics.

Workers aren't concerned so much about where their job will go, but how they will make ends meet when it does.

George says studies reveal that those who've operated as a contractor for tech companies like Uber, have failed to see the economic progress experienced by traditional employees, making many skeptical of large tech operators.

"This is a phenomenon that is going to increase I think it is something that socially we need to pay attention to." says George.

University of Auckland Professor Elizabeth George spends much of her recent study researching the casualization of labour as result of new tech products like Uber.
University of Auckland Professor Elizabeth George spends much of her recent study researching the casualization of labour as result of new tech products like Uber.

Lessons from the past and apocalyptic AI forecasts are serving as a cautionary warning for governments.

The world's economic think tank, WEF (World Economic Forum) recently announced it believes that some 50 per cent of all work tasks will be automated by 2025.

This has triggered vehement rebuttals by academics and technologists, but legislators are taking action, likely fearful of how they will maintain societal order in a world of dwindling jobs.

The general consensus for tackling the economics of AI seems to revolve around taxing the companies whose technologies erode jobs and then providing citizens with a work-free 'Universal Basic Income'. Finland has tested out the idea and the New Zealand Labour Party tabled it in the lead-up to the last election.

New Zealand's pole position for an AI Revolution

Appetite for a Universal Basic Income in New Zealand has subsided since the election campaign, possibly because of the country's strong economic growth, low unemployment and skills shortages.

Add to this successive governments plans to try to migrate New Zealand to a so-called 'knowledge economy'.

In the 1960s, for example, 27 per cent of kiwi jobs were in manufacturing. Today it accounts for around 10 per cent of all jobs.

Last week Spark's chief executive Simon Moutter announced the company's help desk chatbot, Ivy, resolved around 40 per cent of customer queries in October, doing the work of approx 43 staff that month.

That was a statement of job erosion more praised than pilloried.

It was a similar story when Domino's delivered its first pizza by drone in Auckland more than a year ago now.

But this doesn't reflect the global situation. In May of this year Foxconn, the world's largest electronics manufacturer that produces devices like the iPhone, announced it would eliminate some 60,000 workers in China, favoring AI-fueled robotics. Societal unrest in a population of almost 1.4 billion people is something no government is keen to tackle.

Academics have also pointed out that when we've come to the point where robotics are finally cheaper than assembly line workers on less than $7 (NZ) a day, we are in a state of serious transformation.

Kaku however still argues NZ is uniquely placed to reap the benefits of AI because the jobs kiwis seem to like doing, or are training for, tend to be those most resistant to an AI overhaul.

"I think there are three big areas where jobs are going to flourish in the future. Human interaction for one, like being a counselor or being a lawyer. Robots can't argue before a judge. They don't know the ethics of law" Kaku said.

Other robot-resistant areas are those that involve manual dexterity and pattern recognition. Gigs like gardeners, plumbers and electricians according to Kaku.

"No robot can pick up garbage. No robot can fix your toilet. No Robot can landscape a garden. Robots are clueless in those areas" says Kaku.

Kaku's final point is intellectual capital. "This is creativity. This is products of the mind, writing a song, telling a joke, creating a new scientific theory. Robots can't do any of the above. Anything involving innovation, creativity, robots simply cannot do."

Kaku's list is of course by no means definitive, but neither he nor George are overly pessimistic about our future under robot overlords.

Both concede however that it pays to be vigilant when it comes to the future.

"Do not turn a blind eye and think this is going away, it is a big change," says George.

Kaku says "For many decades to come, till the end of the century I think we're talking about new opportunities, new industries. In the long term, let's not be naive. One day robots will become self-aware. That's the tipping point."

Professor George finishes with the parting thought

"I have wondered if ultimately the only thing we are really good at is being human and therefore look at what the essence of that is and that's never going to be replaced."