The Future of Work and Automation

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By Danny Kulas

(Before we go ANY further, I would like to recommend the video “Humans Need Not Apply” so as to provide a better understanding of what I’ll be discussing in this article)

Robots are coming to take over the world, steal our jobs and invade every nook-and-cranny of our lives.  Now, as dark and ominous as that may seem, it would be a lie to say this isn’t already happening.  In fact, robots are here, they are stealing jobs and have (just about) edged their way into every facet of living and being and working (and have been doing-so for quite some time).  Now, when I refer to robots I’m more specifically referring to automation and robots and artificial intelligence and machines, in general.  So, what exactly is automation?  Is it even an issue and should we really be concerned?  Will there be any jobs left?!  Let’s take a look and find out.

What’s the Problem?

The problem is that jobs that people once held are increasingly being replaced by robots and automated processes.  Although, this isn’t all that shocking, as “machines have been taking our jobs for centuries (Rachel Nuwer)” (think the steam engine, or the advent of the automobile replacing the necessity of the horse).  This process of technological innovation replacing the human workforce is not new and will continue to increase at a rapid pace as time progresses and therein lies the crux of the problem:  technological innovation is moving forward at such lightning-quick speeds that many segments of the workforce can’t keep up.

We’ve already seen instances of workforce-automation, some of which have been around for decades, hiding in plain sight.  A few simple examples (that you likely interact with on a weekly, if not daily, basis) that come to mind are the automatic-teller-machine (ATM) replacing bank tellers and self-checkout lanes replacing grocery-store clerks and cashiers.  Also, “technologies such as payroll-processing and inventory-control software, factory automation, computer-controlled machining centers, and scheduling tools have replaced workers on the shop floor and in clerical tasks and rote information processing (Andrew McAfee).”  If there is something that can be automated or done with robots, you can bet that it will more than likely become automated.  All of those fast-food workers protesting for $15/hour minimum wage might find themselves out of work permanently thanks to the burger-flipping-robots of the future.

Who Will Be Affected?

Everyone will be affected and there will be no jobs left for anyone.

OK, it won’t be that draconian but just about everyone could be affected.  If you watched the video at the top of this article then you’re well aware that machines can do just about any job a human can and so long as the robot performs as good or better than their fleshy counterparts, then we’re all in for a rude awakening.  That should make anyone concerned.

Now granted, machines won’t come in over-night and gobble up every job that is available, it takes time in the form of years (and even decades) to bring much of this technology to market and for it to be adopted and implemented in the workplace.  Over the years humans have been replaced by machines to conduct the repetitive and mundane tasks (low-skilled) that once belonged to the human worker.  Take the assembly line, for example.  Where hundreds of people could find steady employment, now only the help of several automated robots is needed and at a severely discounted price.  Machines taking jobs that were once held by humans is only a small piece of the problem, though, and an even larger issue we’ll be facing is what to do with all of the people fresh-out-of-work without the proper training and advanced skills to move into a new job.

“Many people fear a jobless future – and their anxiety is not unwarranted:  Gartner, an information technology research and advisory firm, predicts that one-third of jobs will be replaced by software, robots, and smart machines by 2025 (Kathleen Elkins).”  During the Great Depression, the unemployment rate was at 25%, now let that sink in as we push ahead.  While my previous examples highlight rather low-skilled jobs being replaced by robots, fear-not white-collar-community because the machines are coming for your jobs as well.  “Artificial intelligence and robots are not just challenging blue-collar jobs; they are starting to take over white-collar professions as well (Kathleen Elkins).”

Will any jobs be safe?  The short-answer: Yes.  Computers, generally, aren’t that great at interpreting emotions, displaying empathy, purveying comedic relief, or creating new and original pieces of art or music, among other things, but “that doesn’t mean nobody is trying.  Researchers in Arizona are trying to teach robots to appreciate poetry, and a Parisian robot is already able to emulate popular composers and create new music in their sonic likenesses (Jack Smith IV).”  And while inventors and innovators will try to introduce so much of this technology to the marketplace, it’s usability hinges on whether or not a person would rather interact with a machine or a human, depending on the task at hand.  Even if a robot is better at a certain task than a human, there is a high probability (this high-probability certainly depends on the task in question) that many people will continue to choose to interact with actual people (think: empathy) and not their metal-and-chrome counterparts.

What Can We Do About It?

With all of the jobs automation has removed from the workplace, many people will ask “What can I do to stop this?”  NEWSFLASH: You Cannot Stop The Robots.  Seriously, there is no stopping the “Second Machine Age (Kathleen Elkins)” and all you can hope to do is become part of the solution (or have saved and invested enough to begin retirement early).

How do you do that?  Go back to school, learn a new skill or apply (if available) for job-training.  It is a daunting task, especially for someone being let-go at an older age doing a job they’ve known for the last x-amount of years, to go back to school.  You might have a home or family (or both) to take care of and can’t afford to substitute work-hours for study-hours.  This will be the case for a large majority of people who find themselves out of work.  I know “go back to school” sounds like a simple answer to such a large problem, but frankly, “we haven’t experienced anything quite like this before.  Even though machines did more and more work and the population grew rapidly for almost 200 years, the value of human labor actually rose.  You could see this in the steady increase in the average worker’s wages.  That fueled the notion that technology helps everyone.  However, that kind of success is not automatic or inevitable.  It depends on the nature of the technology, and the way individuals, organizations, and policies adapt.  We’re facing a huge challenge (Erik Brynjolfsson).”  There’s no doubt that the challenge we’re facing is massive, a challenge I believe we’re ill-prepared for.

One way we can ready ourselves is through education.  This is not a shot at teachers, but more the school boards and education system, in general.  It’s long been time that we upgrade our curriculum to better reflect the growing needs of the workplace.  We need to be focusing more on (read: NOT exclusively) STEM courses (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) and implementing them across the board, for all ages and starting at an early age.  As a person who loves history and really enjoyed my social-science classes all throughout my schooling career, we need to realign our education-goals and what our children (the leaders and workers of tomorrow) will be learning.  I’m not saying we should throw everything we know about teaching out the window and solely focus on STEM areas of study, but what I am saying is that we should be doing a better job of providing these classes to all students and ultimately, making many of them a requirement. But as I mentioned in previous paragraphs, there are professions that humans excel at that robots and machines haven’t been able to match.  With that in mind, “primary and secondary education systems should be teaching relevant and valuable skills, which means things computers are not good at.  These include creativity, interpersonal skills and problem solving (Andrew McAfee).”  Again, I cannot stress enough that I don’t believe we should only be focusing on STEM areas of study but that we should be integrating those study areas into our curriculum at a faster pace.  Having students remember state capitals or the elements of the periodic table may not necessarily be the best use of classroom time.  This is just one example of how we could better prepare ourselves and future generations.

More Jobs?  Less Jobs?

“Digital technologies will bring the world into an era of more wealth and abundance and less drudgery and toil.  But there’s no guarantee that everyone will share in the bounty, and that leaves many people justifiably apprehensive.  The outcome – shared prosperity or increasing inequality – will be determined not by technologies but by the choices we make as individuals, organizations, and societies.  If we fumble the future…shame on us (Erik Brynjolfsson).”  Indeed, Erik is correct in saying that much of what is yet to come hinges on our ability to make knowledgeable and informed decisions, individually and as a group, but to say one way or another that this second machine age will create or destroy more jobs remains to be seen.  If people loiter on the sidelines and don’t get the re-education or job-training they will need to transition into a new, high-skilled role, then yes, it is highly possible that robots will destroy more jobs than they create, but to no fault of their own.  Before the web came along (and even soon-there-after), no one could’ve imagined that their would be job titles such as “Social Media Manager” or “Data Mining Specialist” or “Application Developer” and so-on.  I believe it is safe to say that this second machine age will bring about an abundance of jobs but the caveat is that these jobs will require higher-skilled workers.

Conclusion

The Second Machine Age is quickly approaching. Many people will be under-prepared to face the new challenges of the workplace and because of that, will be left with a decision to make.  For those who are prepared, there is peace in knowing that you have placed yourself in a position to succeed and become part of the solution.  There are monumental strides still to be made in addressing this “coming of age” but it is becoming increasingly difficult to plan for a future that so many know so little about.  Take the time to read about emerging technologies, or teach yourself how to code (there are so many free resources on-line it’s almost overwhelming) or any new skill that will be highly sought after.  It will only benefit you as a person and as a professional and you may even find something that you never thought you’d enjoy.