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In the golden days before 2025, when the robots took our jobs

07 Aug

As a percentage of posts, I write about robots a lot. I firmly believe that we’re near the tipping point where robots will become mainstream; not just in industry or action movies, but in our offices and homes and on our roads. Perhaps we’ve learned from previous technological revolutions or we’re more wary of economic impact now, but I’m glad to see that bigger brains than mine are thinking about the human side of this change.

Illustration by Andrew Rae; Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis; originally from BloombergBusinessweek

Illustration by Andrew Rae; Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis; originally from BloombergBusinessweek

 

Pew Research (with partners) asked almost 1900 experts whether AI and robotic technology will lead to a net increase or decrease in human jobs by 2025. This is a significant concern because with our current problems of unemployment and income inequality — and in my country at least, a strong and sometimes self-defeating culture of individualism — losing jobs across the spectrum but especially in the middle class could be devastating. They summarized their findings:

Key themes: reasons to be hopeful

  1. Advances in technology may displace certain types of work, but historically they have been a net creator of jobs.
  2. We will adapt to these changes by inventing entirely new types of work, and by taking advantage of uniquely human capabilities.
  3. Technology will free us from day-to-day drudgery, and allow us to define our relationship with “work” in a more positive and socially beneficial way.
  4. Ultimately, we as a society control our own destiny through the choices we make.

Key themes: reasons to be concerned

  1. Impacts from automation have thus far impacted mostly blue-collar employment; the coming wave of innovation threatens to upend white-collar work as well.
  2. Certain highly-skilled workers will succeed wildly in this new environment—but far more may be displaced into lower paying service industry jobs at best, or permanent unemployment at worst.
  3. Our educational system is not adequately preparing us for work of the future, and our political and economic institutions are poorly equipped to handle these hard choices.

Pew has a page with specific quotes pulled from experts addressing each of those points. Most of them would make fine essay prompts and I agree with some among the optimists and pessimists. I think this change is going to seem very sudden and we won’t be prepared.  Automation and technical development has been growing at an increasing rate for decades. For example, my car is ten years old.  The experience of driving it is much closer to driving a 1970s sedan than driving my parents’ 2014 Toyota with Bluetooth, GPS, backup camera, parking assist, and more. Buyers expect these features without considering how recently they didn’t exist.

Some of the experts point to the loss of jobs that could occur in the professional sector as a differentiating factor of the robot/AI revolution; others point to the creation of new types of jobs to work with, create, program, and maintain the machines. I think we’ll go through a period of friction as automation removes some minor tasks but adds others, without actually replacing workers. Because of my interest in this topic, I tend to ask people how technology is changing their workplace and I’ve had many opportunities to talk about this with medical professionals. Right now, the sense I get is that they’re feeling a lot of strain. Things like laptops and tablets remove a transcription step and save record space, but I always hear complaints about network speed and screen response time. Some workers are sensitive to seeming inattentive as they type my responses into a device, offering lots of unnecessary apologies. A nurse giving me a pre-surgery stress test said that new electronic record keeping requirements came with new technology but little training. Instead of saving time, she found she had to spend almost as long doing data entry as completing a test, but her workload hadn’t decreased. Some of the nurses covered for others who were less proficient with the machines, which meant that they were turning into computer workers instead of the hands-on helping professionals they had trained to be. At today’s stage of automation, some simple tasks that used to be done by receptionists or file clerks have been removed but others have been shifted onto healthcare workers with unrelated specialized training. Patients get benefits from automated procedures and electronic records, but some low level workers lose their jobs and the middle level is overburdened with tasks that take time away from what they are trained to do.

That said, I am not a “new Luddite”. I think there needs to be a lot of thoughtful dialogue about adjusting to the future that puts people first — not gee-whiz technology, not corporations, not governments. There will be jobs for curious, self-motivated people who are willing and able to adapt their existing skills or train in new ones, but as a society, we also have to consider those who can’t or won’t. In the meantime, it’s heartening to see projects that attempt to extend human capabilities using robotics, like these power-lifting exoskelton prototypes for South Korean shipyard workers.

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Posted by on August 7, 2014 in Our Robot Overlords

 

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