I’ve just watched a news story, that suggests that nearly half of all jobs in Tennessee could be lost to robots “in the next few years”.
Just how seriously should I take this?
Some, obviously, will be lost.
But news services are in the business of panicking the public, not giving valid information.
And the Tech Industry makes a regular practice of overstating it’s products.
[li]What time frame are we looking at?[/li][li]How much exaggeration is going on?[/li][li]Are we looking at a massive economic collapse, due to job losses?[/li][li]What degree of human suffering & misery are we looking at?[/li][/ul]
Technological change tends to be overestimated in the short term, but underestimated in the long term. So, “in the next few years” is probably an exaggeration; but “it won’t ever happen” is also an exaggeration in the opposite direction.
As for the other two questions I suspect we are looking long term at a major economic collapse and lots of human suffering because there really aren’t any solutions that aren’t going to be labeled “socialism” and automatically rejected. There will probably be a lot of shiny new robot facilities idled because no one can afford to buy their services.
Every automation displaces some workers. And at times there has been resistance.
When containers for shipping were first being introduces there was a lot of resistance by some locals of the longshoremen. Some ports almost died because they refused to handle them. In some ports the union compromised with the shipping association. The agreement was to put money into retraining longshoremen and longshoremen were encouraged to retire early. Now look at the amount of shipping that is done by container. Any new freighter that is launched is a container ship. Go to Oakland and look at the number of containers that are being unloaded. Yes it did kill San Francisco as a shipping port.
So as robots will cause a retraining of the existing work force and those who resist will be out of a job, and there will be other changes. I believe there will still be a need for large work force.
I wouldn’t take it too seriously. There aren’t that many jobs left that can be taken over by robots, not with offshoring of so much of our manufacturing sector.
I know that part of the “robots” argument is actually about AI preforming some tasks too, but where I used to work scoring standardized tests they tried a field test of having a program attempt to score essays to hilariously bad results. Many things that seem like a computer could easily do in reality have too much subjectivity to them to program software to score based on possible criteria.
YouTuber CGPGrey did an excellent video about this titled “Humans Need Not Apply”.
Doing some digging around, I found a study by a university that ranked jobs based on how likely they were to be replaced by automation.
“THE FUTURE OF EMPLOYMENT: HOW SUSCEPTIBLE ARE JOBS TO COMPUTERISATION?”, which apparently I downloaded from Oxford University.
I have only skimmed the document, but I could not find what time frame they are discussing.
Buy as Grey points out, the jobs at the high end of the risk spectrum make up a huge amount of the workforce. And we don’t need to have everyone who does a job replaced by machines to make an impact: if automation reduces the jobs in a field by 10%, that is still a lot of people.
And during the Great Depression, unemployment was 25%.
The good news is that we know what this looks like once we’ve come out the other end: The Jetsons. We will work 20 hour weeks supervising machines that need very little supervision, and we will complain abut being overworked.
But how do we get from here to there? There will be an intermediate period where automation will be replacing workers faster than innovation can find new jobs for them to do. This has the potential to get very … rough.
We want to have a plan for how to make the change smoothly. That plan may take years to work out. We want to have it done before the change starts.
And the change has already started.
As Grey points out, what used to be 10 human cashiers is now 1 human supervising 10 automated self-check-out machines.
Self-driving cars aren’t just a cool gadget, they are coming for the job of every Uber driver, cab driver, truck driver, pizza delivery guy, and bus driver. And every forklift operator, and a lot of longshoremen. (Actually, it’s not Uber buy Lyft that GM is developing self-driving cars for, but …)
And, again referencing something Grey says in his video, the big news in technology isn’t this year’s cool new stuff, it is the cool new stuff from ten years ago getting better, cheaper, and more commonplace.
Thankfully, as an artist and designer, my job isn’t threatened by robots yet. I never imagined I’d have given myself long-term job security by picking this field. I’d just read a news article about how robots are developing to the point where they can teach themselves, thereby opening them to the possibility of nonroutine tasks. Nonroutine tasks have typically been the jobs humans are best at and haven’t been pushed out of yet. But they’re developing a call center robot right now and at the company it’s located in, it’s resolving six out of ten incoming calls. That’s a ridiculous amount of jobs it can displace. If the article is right, anyway. Automation is definitely something to keep in mind.
I do agree that a basic income should be tried and tested to see how it works out. I imagine the next step after that is a Star Trek type society. I’m inclined towards it, personally, but we’ll have to try it out and see. It does seem scary - if changeovers to automation aren’t handled well, it can lead to a lot of suffering.
We’ve been promised the Jetsons all along the way and yet every year the squeeze seems to increase, with companies asking less people for more productivity and more hours. I’m not sure we can depend on the Jetsons happening unless we as a people make a concerted effort to make it happen through legislation.
As a 48yo involved in the sales and marketing of a business consultancy firm, I’m not too worried as far as I am concerned.
For my 14yo daughter, however, this is something that I wrestled with when she was a baby, oddly enough, and we did some things to help prepare her for a world in which fewer and fewer are paid to do *tasks *.
Getting along with people, leadership, social skills (how to read body language, how to get people talking about themselves, getting groups to agree, etc.)
Emphasis on reading and creativity
De-emphasis on traditional STEM subjects and pursuits, except mathematics.
I really feel sorry for all these kids being told to be engineers and research scientists as I foresee a world in which many engineers and research scientists are pushed out of their jobs, in which a computer is programmed to find mathematical proofs thereby rendering a lot of theoretical mathematician’s moot, etc etc.
It goes so much against the current mindset of the “STEM is our only hope” movement in education, but I have yet to read an argument as to why computers won’t be able to do most “T” and “E” oriented tasks 30+ years from now. I might be dead by then, but my computer-programming daughter would be 44… and likely have a skillset that is completely useless.
We’re in big trouble. I don’t know about “in a few years” but certainly before I die, our whole social/economic system is going to come to a screeching halt.
We’ve calcified our expectations about how the world “ought” to be over the last hundred years; you shouldn’t get anything unless you work for it, preferably 40hrs a week. Where we should have seen a constant easing of the economic and time burden on our citizens, we have in fact seen that burden increase. The easier life is, the more frantically we need to see everybody “pulling their weight” in order to earn that roof over their heads.
We’ve automated/innovated ourselves out of the need for buggy-whip builders? Well, let them make cars! Ultimately, though, the (achievable) object of automation is to get more productivity out of fewer people. The way forward is not to find new jobs for the displaced employees in Tennessee, but to start working on a social/economic structure in which people can live mostly happy and stable lives without having to “earn” it by putting in an arbitrary amount of time into various tasks that have dubious value to society.
I don’ think you’re correct. Here, for instance, is an article about how Chinese companies are developing and deploying factory robots because of a growing shortage of blue-collar workers. So even the place to which many US jobs have been outsourced is automating much manufacturing.
My semi-serious plan is to make nice with the robots in the hope that I won’t be eliminated when Skynet wakes up. (I have a MechE degree and computer experience so I think I can find a job working with the robots.)
This is a patently ridiculous claim. The notion that technology and engineering fields are easily linearized into the kinds of straightforward tasks that current synthetic intelligence can perform is at odds with the skills and experience it actually takes to perform in these kinds of roles. “Computer programming” for instance, isn’t just about writing code; in order to develop complete, workable, marketable application, far more effort has to be put into developing an architecture, developing an interface to the user, evaluating optimal workflow, and perhaps most importantly, distinguishing the product from other competitors than in actually grinding out and debugging code; in fact, given current modular frameworks and object-oriented design, unless you are doing something extremely novel or technical, developing modern applications are largely a matter of picking the appropriate components and writing some minor glue code to string them together, and then testing the hell out of them to make sure nothing breaks. All of this is creative work that even sophisticated heuristic problem-solving systems are not going to be able to perform in the foreseeable future because it is just too abstract to tell a system what you want and what the end product should look like. Increasingly sophisticated intelligent systems may be used to help write code and certainly to test it in order to make it more robust, but the actual business of developing and supporting applications is going to be beyond the capability of machine intelligence for the foreseeable future.
I’m not speaking in an abstract sense here; I do engineering analysis and design, and I’ve been hearing for going on two decades now how automated engineering systems and sophisticated CAD tools are going to supplant and ultimately replace the analyst and designer so that some marketing hump can say, “I want a widget that does such-and-such” and have a complete design poop out of the end of some kind of automagical factory ready to go to market. Now, it is true that these CAD systems have practically eliminated an entire class of employees (drafters, checkers, and the librarians who maintain drawing archives), just as word processors essentially eliminated secretaries, stenographers, and typists, leaving just a handful of jobs as executive assistants (with the upside that women in the workplace are no longer assumed to be secretaries by default). However, while the technology has reduced the tedious work of redrawing often poor-quality hand drawings, it hasn’t pared down engineering departments to just a few senior engineers. The analysis tools, far from “automating” analysis and getting rid of expertise, require even more experience and skill to use correctly, as well as requiring analysts to better understand how other disciplines use their results in order to communicate their answers. Integrated multi-disciplinary analysis, where one type of analysis (such as structural stiffness) feeds into another type (such as aeroelasticity), requires considerable expertise in order to establish a problem parametrically in such a way that the interfaces and boundary conditions are correctly established, which is not something automated systems do well, or indeed, hardly at all. And this kind of analysis is increasing required for tightly integrated, highly optimized products that are expected to be robust from first prototype onward. It is not the case that we need fewer engineers; it is the case that we need better engineers and better STEM training that focuses not just on engineering fundamentals but developing practical experience in learning how to utilize such tools to help in critical analysis and decision making.
The kinds of jobs that are suitable for replacement by robots and/or machine intelligence systems fall into two general categories: those that are menial and can be broken into discrete tasks with well-defined limits of decision-making (e.g. driving a car, cashiering, warehouse stocking, janitorial, et cetera), and those that provide “expert” assistance (i.e. processing data) to actual decision-makers such as physicians, nurses, fiscal analysts, engineers, et cetera, to reduce workload and make those individuals more productive by highlighting important results. The business of actually making critical decisions and doing other creative work will remain the provence of human employees for the foreseeable future. And even some of that “expert” work is still best done by people; despite our best efforts, machine intelligence still cannot read facial expressions or understand subtle cues in spoken language beyond a certain threshold of complexity, and there may ultimately be a limit to just how sophisticated such systems can be in interacting with customers or recognizing emotional responses without some revolutionary conceptual breakthrough in machine intelligence.
As for the loss of jobs, this will certainly happen, and especially in manufacturing and other menial positions. I’ll be surprised in twenty years if there is a human cashier at a convenience store or a fast food restaurant. (High end restaurants will still hire human waitstaff and cooks because of aesthetics and cache, and because the cost will be borne by the customer.) On the other hand, entirely new avenues of employment may open up, doing the sort of things that machine intelligence is just not good at doing. The gamification of complex tasks such as protein folding, which needs the kind of creative synthesis skills that humans are still much better at than machine intelligence but requires less individual intellect than a mass of generalized cognition, is an area that is ripe to use current workers. The emergence of the “professional blogger”, a vocation that literally came out of nowhere, is an example of how even the technology that automates work can give rise to new sectors of employment. And as the populations of virtually all industrial nations age and start to retire, leaving fewer younger workers, the need for automation and reduction of the more tedious tasks to reduce workload will be critical for a smaller workforce to be adequately productive. Whereas in the pre-industrial era a majority of the potential workforce had to be productive just to achieve sustenance, we currently only have a small fraction of workers doing the basic work to provide food and necessities for an ever-growing population, and the trend for greater productivity out of a smaller segment of the population is crucial to allowing for the kind of “leisure” that permits people to focus careers on scientific advances, commercializing technology, and making sophisticated entertainments.
The biggest danger of the rise of sophisticated robots and machine intelligence isn’t that they’ll take all of our jobs and leave us unemployed, or that they’ll gain unintended sentience and become our overlords, or other such horror scenarios; it is that we’ll cede such authority and even basic skills that we will no longer be able to fend for ourselves in their absence. But then, that has been true since the beginning of industrialization; hardly anyone living in a modern industrial nation is in any way equipped to sustain themselves in absence of all but the most basic technologies.
I was talking to someone about this the other day who took the “Well, there’s no buggy whip factories any more and we survived” view which I see as rather short-sighted since the follow up was “Well, if robots are doing it, then we’ll need more robot scientists”.
I suggested that Trump was doing so well among a group of Americans because, while I might think that economic protectionism and trade wars isn’t great policy, I might feel differently if I was an out of work factory employee in foreclosure who was being told “Hey, there’s no buggy whip factories! Just use your unemployment check to become a robot scientist!”
Here’s an example of how one type of job is being changed by robots. Amazon bought a robotics company called Kiva Systems so they could use robots in their distribution warehouses. But the robots aren’t picking items off the shelve and filling orders. Instead, as I understand it, each shelf rack has an opening at the bottom. A human order-filler needs an item from a particular shelf rack, perhaps a thousand feet away. Previously, they would run over there and collect the item. Now the robot goes under the rack, picks it up and brings it to the order-filler, who stays in one spot.
There are more adults with jobs now when ever before in the nation’s history. What the hell are all those “working” people doing, considering that everything is made in China, and offices are insufficiently staffed to answer the phone, and robots are already doing nearly everything in food production and processing. It now takes 30 minutes to open a bank account, while 50 years ago, it took 30 seconds. Offices, with computers, now need more workers than they did in the days when accounts were kept by people with inkpots and quill pens. Less than half of all school board employees are teachers.
Most people are employed largely to conform with regulatory agencies, and that mountain will keep on growing, no matter how robotic the work becomes. People will be hired to monitor the robots and keep track of what they do. America’s economic and ethical principles are based on the proposition that work must be done by whomever consumes, the pre-industrial Calvinist work ethic that still drives our social perspective.
Even if robots did everything, we would still be under the “forced labor” edict and “work” would be created somehow.
When I was a teenager (in the 80s), I had a few jobs in fast food restaurants. These days, kids don’t seem to work in fast food as much. I think part of this is the rise of competition from adults with limited skillsets/intellect; these are the adults who used to be able to get factory or farm jobs, but now that those jobs have been eliminated due to automation, they are underemployed, taking whatever work they can get and supplementing it with public assistance. When self-driving cars take hold, taxi drivers will soon find themselves in the same situation. So you’re a stockroom worker? Amazon’s robot system will come for your job soon. Baggage handler? Watch out, because Boston Dynamics is making robots with more and more impressive capabilities; their latest version is bipedal (with pretty good balance) and can see packages and pick them up with its arms.