The future of automation: robots are coming but won’t take work
At the start of the first Terminator movie, Sarah Connor, unknowingly the future mother of the Earth Resistance Movement, works as a waitress when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 is sent back in time to kill her. But what if, instead of attempting to assassinate him, Skynet’s android assassin instead approached the owner of Big Jeff’s family restaurant, where Sarah worked, and offered to do his shifts for lower pay, while working faster and making fewer mistakes? Sarah, newly unemployed, unable to support herself, gives up her studies and decides that starting a family in this economic climate may not be smart. Hey, hop: no more John Connor.
This, in a somewhat cyberbolic word, is the biggest immediate threat many fear when it comes to automation: not a superintelligent-driven robopocalypse, but rather one that ushers in an era of technological unemployment.
Some very smart people have been sounding the alarm bells for years. A 2013 study carried out by the Oxford Martin School suggested that about 47% of jobs in the United States could be automated over the next two decades, of which only 12 years remain after the study’s publication. Like Hemingway’s old bankruptcy quote, that it happens “gradually, then suddenly,” the authors suggested that in the first wave office and administrative support workers, as well as workers in the construction trades. production, would be removed from Thanos. . In the second wave, every task involving finger dexterity, feedback, observation, and working in confined spaces would be devoured by the software.
To date, this has not happened in such catastrophic numbers. In fact, hiring by the big tech companies that have invested the most in automation has overtaken many other industries. Amazon, who once its human editors were fired in favor of algorithmic recommendation systems and is constantly working on the robotization of its warehouses, hired 175,000 additional people as the coronavirus lockdown began in March of last year. Other tech companies like Netflix haven’t slowed down their hiring either, even at a time when COVID was creating many industries.
These companies have, of course, benefited from a very trying time in world history. Streaming companies, communications companies like Zoom, device makers like Apple, and e-commerce “stores of everything” like Amazon were perfectly positioned to take advantage of the world stuck at home. But this illustrates the complexity of the situation. AI, robotics, and various potentially human technological infrastructures made these “unicorns” more unicorns, which in turn meant they could hire more people.
These effects may seem counterintuitive. In an essay entitled “Why are there still so many jobs? The history and future of workplace automationDavid Autor, professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), examined the quadrupling of ATMs between 1995 and 2010 and its impact on the number of cashiers employed in banks. not the same as an advanced robot, but you can reasonably assume that an additional 300,000 ATMs would decrease the number of people hired to dispense money.
In fact, the employment of bank tellers increased by 50,000 during this same period. ATMs mean more bank workers could be freed up to focus on what Autor calls “relationship banking.” Autor notes that technology means that bank workers are no longer primarily “cashiers, but… salespeople, who build relationships with customers and introduce them to additional banking services like credit cards, loans, and banking products. ‘investment’.
That’s the great promise of tools like AI – that they won’t replace humans as much as they will. increase humans. They will, we are told, do away with boring, dirty and dangerous jobs, while allowing humans to focus on more value-added tasks. If that’s correct, that’s great. No one bemoans the fact that technology (and civilization in general) has done away with child chimney sweeps in Victorian England. Maybe we wouldn’t be too sad that some crazy or messy data tasks – not to mention potentially deadly ones – are captured by bots.
A growing number of jobs are likely to be hybrid jobs in which humans work alongside machines.
The composition of jobs changes over time. In 1800, 90% of Americans lived and worked on farms. Today, the overwhelming majority live and work in cities. A recent study from MIT, “Work of the futureNoted that 63% of today’s jobs did not exist just 80 years ago, in the early 1940s. Since 1990, more than 1,500 new professional roles have emerged as job categories. officials, including software engineers, SEO experts, and database administrators. Many of them are technological, but other types of jobs are “high interaction” roles built around personal interactions that seem to become more and more important as our lives become more digital.
A growing number of jobs are likely to be hybrid jobs in which humans work alongside machines. In some cases, it will be technologies such as robotic process automation (RPA) tools, which can sit on the desk of human workers and provide them with advice on how to do their jobs better, such as prioritizing tasks. tasks or remain in compliance. heavy occupations. AI sniffing emotions can help identify callers’ emotions and route them to the right human operator in a call center.
Meanwhile, tech companies are benefiting from what’s known as IAA, or “artificial intelligence,” in which humans help perform tasks that AI is currently unable to do. Twitter, for example, employs human contractors, called judges, whose job it is to interpret the meaning of the various search terms that are trending on the service. Meanwhile, in Amazon fulfillment centers, robots such as those made by Boston-based Kiva Systems (bought by Amazon nearly a decade ago) are being used to shop around the shelves, bringing them to the human “collector”, who can then use them. their fine motor control to choose the right item for packaging.
The future of employment
The big question is what will all of this mean for human employment in the future. As artificial intelligence gets smarter, more tasks that currently require humans can be automated. There are AI robots capable of perform certain duties once deemed worthy of a high capital job as a lawyer. Right now, human drivers can be hired to oversee the AI driving autonomous vehicles, providing these people with better, more sociable hours of work during which they don’t have to be on the road for days. at a time.
But will they always do it? Probably not. The same goes for picking up items from Amazon warehouses and potentially one day delivering packages to the customer’s doorstep. However, as some of these handy fruits are picked, humans will be able to tackle the higher fruits that machines are not yet capable of.
Automation alone is not going to steal jobs as some fear. It’s a much more complex landscape than this simple way of looking at it suggests. It will dominate some jobs, but will also usher in new forms of employment, much of which (but not all) is related to development, maintenance or working with this new technological infrastructure. As the hiring frenzy of tech giants and Autor’s research on ATMs show, the idea that companies investing in technology are necessarily bad for human workers is not a given.
What technology can do – and probably will do – is exacerbate societal trends. About four decades ago, many American workers experienced a divergence in the trajectory of wage increases and productivity growth. As many have pointed out, technology is likely to help empty the middle classes, increasing incomes and the quality of jobs for some, while making it harder for others. It will also mean a society in which participants constantly retrain and hone their skills, in part to stay on the safe side of the tech replacement wave. But there is a lot more nuance in this image than what is sometimes presented.
American History Melvin Kranzberg once said that “technology is neither good nor bad; it is not neutral either. The same is true of its likely impact on the labor market. It’s complex. But where chaos reigns, there is also opportunity.