Are robots going to take away all of our jobs? Some, but not as much as you might think!
by Ed Maguire
Will humans be irrelevant in the future? What kind of jobs in the future will survive? How can we make sure that we don’t make career choices that end up like buggy-whip makers, or switchboard operators? What will we do if there is no work left for most people to do?
There’s a lot of conversation these days about what could happen to jobs with the pace of advances in robotics and artificial intelligence. When people think of robots doing work, the first thing that comes to mind is often a loveable robot from popular culture like C3PO in Star Wars, or Data in Star Trek. Or maybe on the dark side, a malevolent super computer like the HAL9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey? In reality, robots are far more likely to look like something you’d find on an assembly line. The automation that replaces jobs is apt to look a lot more like the EZ-Pass tag for your car, or the self-checkout line at the store.
The truth is that automation has been replacing jobs for hundreds of years, making people
uncomfortable and scared for their future. If you go back to the early 1800s, a weaver named Ned Ludd smashed knitting frames (new technology) and gave rise to a movement of weavers opposed to automation known as Luddites. The proportion of the US workforce employed in agriculture declined from 41% in 1900 to 2% in 2000 due to automation. We've seen big declines in other jobs. Automobiles reduced the number of blacksmiths and stable hands; machines have replaced many jobs in construction and manufacturing. In the past, the workers seemed to be able to retrain skills as new types of professions arose.
The concern today is whether the accelerating pace of change brought about by exponential growth in computing power, advances in Artificial Intelligence and the integration with automation and robotics will destroy jobs faster than workers can adjust. Some recent studies seem to give reason for concern: a 2013 paper entitled “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?” by Dr. Michael A. Osborne from Oxford University’s Department of Engineering Science and Dr. Carl Benedikt Frey of the Oxford Martin School, estimated that 47% of jobs in the US are “at risk” of being automated in the next 20 years. They found that jobs in transportation, logistics, office and administrative support are at “high risk” of automation with other occupations within the service industry also highly susceptible. Larry Summers, the former American treasury secretary, looked at employment trends among American men between 25 and 54. Only one in 20 was not working In the 1960s, but according to his forecast this could reach one in seven within 10 years. In his view, technical change is increasingly taking the form of “capital that effectively substitutes for labor.” Other prominent economists including Nouriel Roubini and Paul Krugman have publicly expressed concerns that successes in technology are eliminating jobs. Robert Reich has said that robots will “take away good jobs that are already dwindling. They will in short supplant the middle class.”
The topic of technological unemployment has been discussed at great length in books like Martin Ford’s “Rise of the Robots” and Terry Kaplan’s “Humans Need Not Apply.” In Ford’s view, the writing is on the wall: we are already seeing so much technology-driven unemployment that ultimately society will have to provide a Universal Basic Income, or UBI, to every member of society to account for the declining cost of producing goods and the shortage of jobs for everyday workers. This idea is gaining a lot of ground, with a considerable amount of discussion at the 2016 World Economic Forum.
Not everyone believes in the doom and gloom forecasts. A new study by Melanie Arntz, Terry Gregory and Ulrich Zierahn for the OECD argues that studies on robots or computerization destruction of jobs, vastly overestimate the risks. They believe disruption is much less than feared, “finding that on average, across the 21 OECD countries, 9% of jobs rather than 47%, as proposed by Frey and Osborne face a high automatibility.” The McKinsey Global Institute sees job “redefinition” instead of unemployment, foreseeing that very few occupations will be automated in their entirety in the near or medium term. Rather, certain activities will be automated, business processes will transformed, and jobs redefined. Authors Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfssen in “The Second Machine Age” see that disruption is inevitable in the short term, but remain optimistic that society will adjust.
So how do you make sure that robots don’t take YOUR job? The first question to ask is whether what you do all day can be easily automated by a machine. Working as a cashier or customer service person can be replaced by self-service kiosks or online (we’ve certainly seen a lot of shopping mall jobs go away because of e-commerce). If it’s a task that’s repetitive, or can be replaced in part by software processes or an online app, it’s likely the job will look different in a decade’s time. Of course, there are some jobs that could change dramatically – like taxi drivers or truck drivers with the adoption of self-driving technologies. Others are not likely to see much change at all – gardeners, nurse practitioners, therapists- jobs where there needs to be a human touch.
I like to think that robots and computers don’t have a sense of style, or good taste, or empathy, and that can never be replaced by a machine. What are those human qualities? Creativity, the ability to inspire others, the ability to organize groups of people are examples, though there are many more. Being a designer, storyteller, or an artist can never be replaced by a machine. What are those human qualities? Creativity, the ability to inspire others, the ability to organize groups of people are examples, though there are many more. Being a designer, storyteller, or an artist can never be automated, and we as human beings crave contact and social connections. While it does help to have your Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) chops, never underestimate the value of an English or Art History education (I’m not talking about a degree, that’s another conversation entirely). Embrace what’s best about being human, and let the machines handle the rest!
Ed Maguire has worked as an equity analyst covering the technology sector since 1999 for a variety of firms including CLSA Americas, Merrill Lynch and CIBC. Previously he led sales for independent music distributor Twinbrook Music while working as a professional musician performing on bass, violin and keyboards, composing, arranging and producing a variety of styles of music. Ed holds a B.A. in Music from Columbia and an M.B.A. from Rutgers in Finance and Management Information Systems. He lives in Millburn, NJ with his wife Lily, their two kids and the dog Spock.