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One-in-three developers fear A.I. will replace them

What keeps software developers up at night, other than coding? The fear that artificial intelligence systems can replace them, according to a new survey.

Evans Data Corp., in a survey of 550 software developers, asked them about the most worrisome thing in their careers. A plurality, 29%, chose this answer: "I and my development efforts are replaced by artificial intelligence."

Surprisingly, this concern about A.I. topped the second-most identified worry, which was that the platform the developer is working on will become obsolete (23%), or doesn't catch on (14%).

Concerns about A.I. replacing software developers has academic support. A study by Oxford University, The Future of Employment, warned that the work of software engineers may soon become computerized. Machine learning advances allow design choices that can be optimized by algorithms.

These systems can also detect bugs "with a reliability that humans are unlikely to match," the study said.

"Big databases of code also offer the eventual prospect of algorithms that learn how to write programs to satisfy specifications provided by a human," wrote the Oxford researchers, Michael Osborne, of Oxford's Department of Engineering Science, and Carl Benedikt Frey, an economics researcher at the university.

According Janel Garvin, CEO of Evans Data, the thought of obsolescence due to A.I., "was also more threatening than becoming old without a pension, being stifled at work by bad management, or by seeing their skills and tools become irrelevant."

This is the first year Evans has asked developers about A.I., said Michael Rasalan, the firm’s director of research. He sees the developers' concern as related to the issue of skills relevancy.

“Developers worrying that A.I. would be advanced enough to replace them is very similar to developers worrying that the technology trends have outpaced their own skills and abilities,” said Rasalan.

Concerns about A.I. shouldn’t discourage people from becoming developers, “but it does provide a good case for developers to keep on top of the latest development practices,” he said.

The survey also found mixed views about the impact of A.I. on humankind. Nearly 80% agreed that robotics and A.I. will enhance life. But close to 60% at least somewhat agree “that robotics and A.I. will be disasters in the making,” said Rasalan.

“What we read here is a kind of ambivalence among developers, and shines a light more on their worries than on immediate realities,” said Rasalan. “More people do view that A.I. can bring positive change. But there is a possibility that things could spiral out of control, and this uncertainty might spur the same developers to say that change could be, if not disastrous, then disruptive.”

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