Artificial intelligence will make research mathematicians obsolete

UZH News

AI and jobs

Artificial intelligence is changing the way we work. It will not make us superfluous, predicts computer scientist Abraham Bernstein. But there will be new forms of cooperation between man and machine that will open up new, interesting perspectives for us.

Interview: Thomas Gull

“I want to develop technologies that enable people to do exciting work,” says Abraham Bernstein, Professor of Computer Science and Director of the Digital Society Initiative at UZH. (Image: Stefan Walter)

Abraham Bernstein, how will AI change the way we work?

Abraham Bernstein: We are experiencing a new wave of automation. In the industrial revolution, mechanical work was taken over by machines. Now it's cognitive activities such as looking through applications, checking bills or analyzing a picture. This means that office work is now being automated for which we previously used our heads. This also changes the work of the people who use these digital tools. Just as the introduction of the circular saw changed the work of the carpenter, algorithms are now changing our everyday office life by delegating certain tasks to the machine.

Isn't that a bit euphemistic? Don't we become redundant when algorithms do office work?

Amber: Why should we become superfluous? Work has never been static. Around 1800 the majority of the Swiss workforce was employed in agriculture. Today this proportion is negligibly small. Or: More than half of the Swiss who have completed an apprenticeship no longer work in the profession they learned. This means that we employees are constantly adapting to changing circumstances.

So AI isn't a job killer?

Amber: I think we have to de-dramatize that a bit. There are two big theories about how digitization is changing the world of work. One says that the new technologies take over certain things and thus change our work and shift it to new areas. That means: We don't have less work, we have different ones. The second, dystopian theory says: The machine takes over our work and we are unemployed afterwards. Of course, that fuels fears.

What do you think?

Amber: As a computer scientist, I'm an optimist. In the foreseeable future, a lot of what we do today will certainly be taken over by the machine. But we humans are creative and versatile; for us there will be other activities. From my point of view, the question that arises is: In which areas will we develop further and how will cooperation with AI look like in the future?

How does the division of labor with the machine change our everyday work?

Amber: We will give up more routine activities and have more time for other things. When I think of the university environment, we can assume that the transfer of facts will be increasingly automated, for example via e-learning platforms. We then have more time for reflection and discussion in the lectures and seminars. That means: the university will go back to what it used to be - a place where discussions are held and where the matter is critically examined.

What is your prognosis for the future?

Amber: In the long term, every wave of automation had led to more, simply different work. There is a study by the Center for European Economic Research in Mannheim that predicts that digitization in Germany will not lead to fewer, but to more jobs. Presumably this also applies to Switzerland. Above all, we have to think about the transition to the future world of work.

Do you have an idea?

Amber: In our research, we work on organizing complex tasks in such a way that they can also be carried out by less well-qualified people. We achieve this through a combination of human and artificial intelligence. For example, in a study we considered how one can cope with statistical work with people who are not statisticians.

How can these be integrated into highly complex analyzes?

Amber: That's an interesting approach. Up until now it was assumed that there will be a division of employees: on the one hand, the well-qualified who will have interesting, well-paid work in the brave new digital world; on the other, those who cannot keep up and thus become superfluous or for whom only poorly paid jobs remain. You now show a third possibility, namely to adapt work processes so that they can be carried out by less qualified people.

Does that solve our problems?

Amber: You would have to ask an economist. What I want to do is develop technologies that empower people. We should be able to do exciting work with the help of machines. With digitization, work organization and division of labor are changing - we now have a new employee: the machine. She has skills that I don't have, together we can do things that I can't do alone.

What can the machine do better than what we can do?

Amber: She has endless patience and the ability to process huge amounts of data and recognize structures in it. In this way she can recognize and compare patterns very well and reliably. Look at and interpret x-rays, for example. If the machine is unsafe, the decision is still made by humans.

What can humans bring to the cooperation with the machine?

Amber: Humans have a certain creativity that is not yet found in machines today. Some of my colleagues say that it is only a matter of time before machines are also creative. We'll see. There are already bots who write newspaper articles, for example by analyzing business reports. Bloomberg and other companies use such tools. In direct interaction with other people, on the other hand, we still have clear advantages, for example when it comes to building empathic relationships.

But work is also being done on this, for example by imitating telephone robots with human voices.

Amber: In areas such as simple call center activities, there will probably be a scramble between humans and machines, but at the moment humans have a clear advantage in interpersonal interactions.

Where do you see the great opportunities in the use of AI?

Amber: We have already discussed some of this: The reduction of routine work, more variety, perhaps the opportunity to develop in areas of activity in which one is supported by the machine, or to learn new things with the help of the machine - I see enormous things there Opportunities.

Do people have to get fitter to keep up with the machines? Or is it also the other way around, as you suggested, that the machine should give people a hand?

Amber: People will certainly have to get fit. I like to compare that to mental arithmetic. You still have to be able to do that despite the pocket calculator, but not to ten decimal places. We have to ask ourselves: which of our skills are no longer so relevant, which will be more? We have to adapt our education accordingly. We now need to find out how AI is changing the world of work and how we can react to it.

One fear associated with the new digital jobs is that a new poorly paid, poorly qualified and protected proletariat could emerge here.

Amber: This danger cannot be dismissed out of hand. It used to be the factory worker, today it is people who prepare content for algorithms. The point is, if you do a job that anyone can do anywhere in the world, the chances are that it is not well paid by local standards. This is just as true in the digital industry as it is in the rest of working life. An important aspect of the problem is that many work in unregulated conditions, for example as freelancers.

How do you protect them?

Amber: That is unclear. And these are the discussions we have with Uber and other digital platforms. This is one of the risks of the new technology, that new labor markets emerge for which no rules have yet been created. That will and must change. However, we can only regulate things that we know. The regulations therefore lag a little behind the new developments. The Swiss National Science Foundation would like to get to the bottom of precisely such questions about changes in the labor market with the National Research Focus 77 “Digital Transformation”.

Thomas Gull, editor of UZH Magazin