Pivot Presents : Artificial Intelligence and Robotics 2025. An Interview with Aaron Smith, Pew Internet Center

Author: Matt Godson

Matt Godson:     This is Matt Godson, President with Pivot, and joining me here today is Aaron Smith.   Aaron is a senior researcher at Pew Research Center. He’s an expert in the growing impact of mobile technologies and the internet, connecting Americans to political and civic issues and ongoing demographic trends in technology adoption. We are also delighted to welcome Aaron to the speaker faculty for this coming October’s Pivot Conference taking place on October 16 and 17 in New York City.  Aaron – welcome.

Aaron Smith:   It’s a pleasure to be here.  Thank you for having me.

Matt:     Wonderful.  So your most recent study is on the topic of artificial intelligence, and that’s what you’re going to be presenting on at this October’s Pivot.  Can you tell me a little bit about the survey and the background to it?

Aaron:   Absolutely.  So this study is part of an ongoing series that we’ve been conducting for a number of years now. Every two years or so we conduct a survey of internet experts and ask them for their thoughts and predictions about the future of various aspects of the digital revolution.  So the people who respond to these surveys cover a really wide range of backgrounds and job titles, and so we have research scientists, we have entrepreneurs, we have business leaders and journalists, we have practitioners and engineers; they range from public luminaries like Vint Cerf or Doc Searles, to people who choose to respond anonymously, and everyone in between those two points.

So in terms of how the survey works, we conduct it online by special invitation to a list that we’ve curated over the last decade or so.  And for each topic we want to cover, we present our respondents with two potential future outcomes and ask them to choose which one they think is most likely and then get them to describe to us why they selected the outcome that they did.

This gives us the ability to really get a rich picture of what people think is going to happen over the next decade in these particular areas. So, for this study, we posed to them the question of whether networked, automated artificial intelligence agents and robotic devices are going to displace more jobs than they will have created by 2025.  So we really wanted to get their sense of whether advances in AI and in robotics will be job creators or job destroyers over the next decade.

Matt:     Why did the Pew Research Centre decide to create or update its research on AI?  Are there particular developments that you’re seeing that underpin the new study?

Aaron:   Yes, this is actually a subject that we’ve been wanting to look at for a few years now and there were definitely some recent developments that convinced us that now was a good time to strike.  So there was a study by Oxford University that was released in the fall of last year that estimated that almost half of the jobs in the United States will be at some level of risk from automation in the next decade or so ; and there have been a number of other books recently that have been written on the subject of technology and jobs.

So in addition to what’s going on in the academic space, around that time there were a number of very visible advances in artificial intelligence and robotics – so IBM’s Watson computer won Jeopardy;  we had seen Google’s recent success  with implementing driverless cars.  So basically this was a subject that was getting a lot of attention from policy makers , seeing a lot of interest in the business community and by the general public, so it was really apt – the sweet spot of where we want to be in terms of the subjects we study as researchers, so for that reason we decided that now was the time to add this to the list of topics that we had asked about in this particular survey of experts and see where they see things heading.

Matt:     From your perspective, what result did you find most interesting or surprising?

Aaron:   So, there are a couple of things that we found really fascinating about this particular piece of work.  So one of the things that we thought was fascinating was how people’s value judgments about some of the coming changes with respect to jobs didn’t always line up as you might expect.  So an example of that is that was there was a pretty sizeable group of people who said that they expect artificial intelligence to be a job destroyer – to replace more jobs than it creates – but then when we started digging into their written comments we saw them really spinning on how they though that would actually be a good thing for society as opposed to a bad thing.  So Google’s Hal Varian offered an example of this in his comments – he expressed the hope that the next wave of technological advance could take what he referred to as “dull, repetitive and unpleasant work” away from human beings and allow us to spend our time doing things that we actually like to do instead of 40 hours a week going to a humdrum job –that we’d rather be doing other things instead of that.

We saw a number of people echoing those statements and saying that they hoped we’d be able to spend less time at work and more time relaxing; more time with loved ones; and others actually expressed a desire – or a  prediction that  … our definition of a job is going to shift and that, instead of working at a company that we go to every day, we’ll see a big explosion in terms of small artisanal and DIY projects .  So even though they see a net negative outcome in terms of overall jobs, they actually see a net positive benefit to society.

We also saw a similar theme in some of the respondents who pointed out that, regardless of how this turns out,  we’re going to see both winners and losers in the way this plays out.  Driverless cars were a really interesting example of that; so if driverless cars do become widespread (which is something a lot of our respondents expect is going to happen) obviously that’s going to have a huge, and largely negative, impact on the ability of people who drive taxis and trucks and work in other parts of the transport and logistics industries.  And so there’s many ways that’s going to be harmful to a lot of people in terms of employment prospects.  At the same time, we had a number of  people make the point that, if lots more people are in driverless cars, there’s going to be a lot fewer people who are injured or killed in traffic accidents, and that our cities may be much more liveable and enjoyable than they are today.  We also had a number of people make the case that this is going to have a hugely positive impact on the ability of senior citizens and people with disabilities and other people with limited mobility to live independently in a way that is simply not possible for them today when have to rely on people to take them around – and driverless cars could really be a boon to some of those groups.

So when you look at the situation from a pure jobs perspective, you might come down on one side of the equation, but when you look at the situation from the perspective of its overall benefit to society, a lot of the respondents we talked to said that, notwithstanding the job situation, this could still really be a net positive to society as a whole if we’re able to work with and utilize the technologies in a smart and intelligent way.

Matt:     Interesting in that what you’re saying is that there may well be an effect on certain types of jobs but there’s a possibility this will open up new employment opportunities and new sectors ; as new technologies require support.

Aaron:   Absolutely.  And that was exactly –  for the group that anticipates this will have a positive impact upon the job situation – that was exactly their argument.  They looked back to the last century or so of technological change and made the case that every new technology displaces something that came before it, but that humans have always been very adept at creating new jobs and new industries –  building, utilizing and maintaining those same technologies.  A number of people made the argument that 15 years ago no one would have expected crowd computing specialist or app developer to be major job categories but today lots and lots of people are making a very good living doing those kinds of jobs.  So, for the group that expects this to be a net benefit to human employment, that was exactly their argument  – that we will find ways to utilize, maintain, implement these technologies; and certainly there may be a displacement of jobs that came before – and that people may have to shift what they do – but then we’ve always been very good at creating new things for people to do –and opening up new categories of employment –utilizing the same technologies that are in many cases displacing the jobs of  the past.

Matt:    Aaron, that’s wonderful.  Thank you so much for that.  I look forward to reading the study in depth and I look forward to your presentation this coming October at Pivot in New York City.  Thank you so much.

Aaron:   Thank you so much Matt.  I’m looking forward to it myself and I’m excited to be part of it.

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