Artificial intelligence is making it into the headlines and is already bringing about much change. But what does it really mean — especially for jobs?

Byron Reese has spent a good portion of his life studying the interplay between technology and human history. In his latest book, The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity, Reese weighs what artificial intelligence is and what it will do; he also ponders the question, “Will AI take your job?”

In addition, Reese is CEO and publisher at technology research company Gigaom, founder of several technology firms and keynote speaker at the upcoming Staffing Industry Executive Forum in Austin, Texas.

Senior Managing Editor Craig Johnson spoke with Reese regarding some of his observations about AI, jobs and more.

Johnson: Your book looks at whether AI will take our jobs, and you mention three different scenarios: Robots will take all our jobs, robots will take only some jobs or robots will take no jobs. What do you think is the most likely scenario?

Reese: I don’t think we have anything to worry about. I mean, if you look at technology, what it does is increase human productivity, and that’s always a good thing. If it wasn’t a good thing, then it would be better if you passed a law making everybody work with one arm tied behind your back. And we know that’s ridiculous. So, technology increases productivity and when you increase human productivity, you open up new opportunities. You know, we see that happen.

People use examples from the industrial revolution and all of that, but you don’t even have to go that far back. If you just look at the Internet, which destroyed some jobs, but it created vastly more opportunity and all kinds of new businesses and that’s what will continue to happen.

What are some of the jobs most likely to be done by a robot in the near future and what are those least likely to be done by a robot?

Well, any job that two people would do identically is probably a candidate for automation, like data entry. Any job that doesn’t vary from day to day — like a toll booth operator — that is a candidate for automation. Any job that requires less than one second of mental thought to do is probably automatable. But there are very few jobs actually that are like that. The kinds of things that we don’t know how to automate are things that require you to move around. So, like an electrician or a plumber or anything like that is virtually impossible to automate. Anything that two people would do differently, like anything that’s creative, anything that requires empathy.

Even something as seemingly simple as a waiter requires a lot of initiative. There’s a thousand things that can happen, from a child spilling their drink to a person choking — there are a thousand things like that and computers can’t improvise.

They can’t handle anything that they hadn’t been explicitly programmed to handle; most jobs fall into that camp.

How is AI affecting the staffing industry?

Artificial intelligence is a pretty simple idea. You take data about the past then you study it and you use it to project into the future. Staffing is a great candidate for it because you have a lot of data about the past. You have résumés that come in and those have words and credentials and all of the rest.

Then you have outcomes — people who were successful or less successful at their positions. I think what you would see is artificial intelligence helping to select the candidates, to qualify candidates, to do compliance on a lot of regulations in different states and different places. Any place where you’re dealing with mature sets of data, which staffing does, and pretty repeatable things, are good candidates for AI.

Still, in the end, staffing as an industry is not automatable. I mean, in the end you have to make a call on a candidate or not. But, for many of the tasks people do in staffing, automation can help them increase their productivity. And so, in the end, that’s good for people.

What can business people do to prepare for opportunities as AI becomes more advanced?

I don’t work harder than my great grandparents, but I live a much more lavish life than they lived. And that’s because of productivity. An hour of my product time yields so much more than an hour of their time. And so that’s really the key — to figure out ways to increase your own productivity. Watch your daily life and look at things in your life that you can automate away, things that you can do the same over and over every day, all at the same criteria, and as much as possible start automating things in your own life.

What that does is increase your own productivity. And if you always do that, you’ll remain relevant forever. Always look for mundane and repetitive tasks in your own life, add in automation, and try to spend your time doing things only a human can do and you’ll be in great shape.

People often talk about AI taking over. How likely is a worstcase scenario where AI only benefits a few people, leaving a majority out in the cold? Or a conscious AI turns belligerent?

When people say AI, they mean two very different things. One of them is just automation — what we’re talking about here — and nobody is really afraid of that taking over. Nobody thinks your spam filter is going to wake up one day and nobody thinks that your GPS is going to take over. But people who worry about the taking over are talking about something known as General Intelligence.

It’s an AI like you see in the movies and what’s important to note is we don’t know how to make that; nobody knows how to make that. And it’s even an open question of whether it can be made, whether everything a human being does can be done by a machine. If you don’t think that’s true — that there are certain things about humans that machines can never do, the creativity or emotion — then the chances of the of AI “taking over” are zero.

Can we also touch on a best-case scenario where robots and humans live and work in peace?

I think the most likely outcome is that automation and robots and AI will increase productivity just like other technologies have, but increase it dramatically, which will raise the standard of living of everyone. We really can live in a world of hyper-abundance where there isn’t just enough for everyone, but there’s plenty more than enough for everyone, and that’s something people have dreamed about forever, and we’re probably the first generation that can actually achieve that.