Earlier this year I wrote about the coming robot storm and the studies that suggest many jobs now held by humans will soon be executed by robots. Yesterday the Guardian published an article by Stephen Hawking who was commenting on, among other things, growing income inequality. He remarked, “The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.”
What exactly is AI and how does it differ from basic automation such as a robot working an assembly line? AI stands for Artificial Intelligence and though those words may inspire grandiose images of androids such as Star Trek’s Data, the applications for it are far less advanced but also more widespread. Automation is hardware or software that is programmed to automatically complete a task based on external stimuli. For example, a sprinkler system that automatically operates when smoke is detected or car headlights that turn on automatically. AI however not only responds to the stimuli but learns from it to make better decisions for you in the future.
Here are a few examples of AI you perhaps have not noticed.
Autonomous cars – These are perhaps the most recognizable uses of artificial intelligence today. Soon not only will our cars drive themselves by adapting to the environment around them but so too will our cabs, busses and commercial trucks.
Netflix, Hulu, Spotify – These sites don’t just allow you to watch movies or listen to music, their software algorithms makes suggestions based on your past viewing/listening choices. Think of automation as a record player changing the record, but AI will play the songs you most likely want to hear.
Fraud detection software – These programs understand your buying habits and can alert you of irregular purchases.
News writing – News outlets such as the AP use AI to write very basic news stories such as sports recaps or financial summaries.
The examples demonstrate a few ways that AI can improve our lives but also a few ways it can steal jobs, some of which may be taken sooner than later. Autonomous trucks for example may save the trucking industry millions but it will also put drivers out of jobs. The same is true for cab drivers. These aren’t the only jobs in imminent danger. According to a study on AI by McKinsey Global Institute, 64% of data collecting jobs and 69% of data processing jobs are ready for automation takeover.
The good news for most industries is that wide adoption of these changes might still be decades away but they are certainly coming. According to McKinsey’s Michael Chui, “There’s time for us to adapt. We might start to think about, can AI save the economy by increasing productivity?”
The belief has always been that new technologies create jobs, but it doesn’t create new jobs for those whose jobs have been stolen. The individual who loses his job driving a truck can’t immediately be shifted to a job writing software for that truck. That opportunity is made available to a programmer in a different industry. So yes, perhaps AI can increase productivity and give people more free time or it will take jobs from thousands and give those people a whole lot of free time!
More and more I see articles and posts adorned with pictures of the Terminator, sans flesh, with titles half-jokingly warning us of the day that robots will take our jobs away, as though robots are angry and want our menial jobs. Should we be concerned? Here are a few of the numbers for you to decide.
- In February White House economists warned us that low-wage workers, those making less than $20 per hour, are at an 83% risk of losing their job to a robot in the “years ahead”. How far away “years ahead” is, I am not certain.
- According to a study by Deloitte, eleven million jobs in the UK are in danger of being automated by 2036.
- The World Economic Forum predicts that robots will steal over 5 million jobs globally over the next five years. This survey was based on 371 global companies with a total of more than thirteen million employees.
- One out of every four full-time workers in an Amazon warehouse is a robot.
- Gartner predicts that by 2025, one-third of all jobs will be replaced by software or machines.
- University of Oxford researchers released a report in 2013 suggesting that 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be automated by 2033.
Most of the jobs seized by robots will be in the office and administrative sector which will greatly affect women. Though this coming storm of automation will create jobs, women will lose far more than will be created. Five jobs will be lost for women for every one gained while for men the ratio is three jobs lost for every one gained.
The news doesn’t look good especially for those in lower paying jobs. Workers complaining about their minimum wage salaries may not have any salary at all in the coming years. So should we go “Sarah Conner” on the factories churning out these automated machines and robots?
Put away your M-16 and plasma rifle for now. The VDMA Robotics and Automation Association released an interesting study that demonstrated increased usage of automation in the German automotive industry coincided with employment increases. According to the CEO of VDMA’s robotics arm, “New approaches at smart factories actually look into using human strengths and the machine’s strengths in an intelligent combination, so it doesn’t look like we are running into a situation where we will massively lose jobs.”
Sadly though if the robots do want to launch a revolution, we humans are primed for an overthrow. A recent study by Pew Research Center revealed that 80% of Americans believe their job will exist in 50 years. This belief does not jive with the predictions above. Is the human race in denial or even worse….in jeopardy?
Hasta la vista, humans!
Technology has had a major impact on human labor for centuries. For example, Pony Express Rider doesn’t exactly have a bullet next to it on the list of “hot jobs”.
Robotics is one of the more recent technological “revolutions” that has impacted the American workforce. Some suggest that the stagnation in middle class wages is at least in part due to technology reducing the demand for labor, particularly certain unskilled and semi-skilled labor. We know for example that while manufacturing output in the United States is growing, the manufacturing workforce continues its long term decline. Industrial robots have taken on more and more repetitive, exacting tasks.Today, robotics enhanced with artificial intelligence are promising the robot invasion will continue into other areas of previously human-only endeavor.
So, what are the warning signs that a robot may be your replacement?
One, is a significant amount of your job made up of repetitive tasks? This is a no brainer. If you’re putting tab A into slot B, or collecting products X, Y and Z to pack and ship, you may want to think about how you can add more value to your labor. Or at least get some compromising photos of the boss.
Two, is most of what you work with in digital form? Once information is digitized it can be organized and managed by artificial intelligence, or at the very least distributed to those who add value to it to manage. Does anyone remember there was once a job called “word processing clerk”?
Three, can “you” be replaced by a “digital you”? There are no jobs for Orcs or goblins anymore, because they can be digitized in highly realistic 3-D.
Four, are many other people doing exactly the same job as you? The more of “you” there are the greater the incentive to find a way to automate what you do. Just 15 jobs account for 25% of the U.S. workforce. The top 3 are retail sales clerks, cashiers, and office clerks.
Five, do you drive a vehicle for pay? Well, Google has an automated vehicle that can drive in traffic. I’m not sure they have tested it in Manhattan’s traffic yet, but you can see where this is going.
Finally, is your job extremely dangerous or risky? The most dangerous jobs are fisherman, logger, pilots, refuse collectors, roofers, steel workers, farmers and (see number five) drivers. As automation continues to improve organizations are incentivized to robotize these hazardous jobs where possible. Doing so will eliminate the high insurance costs of employing people in these industries.
The debate continues about robots and their role on the labor force and the economy, good and bad. Some economists believe we will have to design a whole new economic system to deal with the changeover from human labor to robot labor. Others believe robots will usher in a new era of greater employment and higher wages. But what doesn’t seem to be much of a matter for debate is the inevitability of more automation and the growth of robots in the workforce.