Gartner Research in a recent report predicted that a third of all jobs will be lost to automation within a decade. And within two decades, according to economists at Oxford, nearly half of all current jobs will be performed with machine technology. This alarming tidbit was revealed in a recent (Feb. 25, 2015) front page article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Jobs and the Clever Robot.”
The traditional view, that technology helps people is being challenged today. Historically, while technology replaced people, those people learned new skills and trades that often as not yielded better, higher-paying, less physically demanding jobs. Think of the transformation of agricultural employment moving into the industrial revolution of the 19th century.
Moreover, even more recently (in the 20th century) MIT economist David Autor points out, automation, rather than killing jobs indiscriminately, commandeered such middle-class work as clerk and bookkeeper at the high and low ends of the market.
Today, computers do legal research, write stock reports and translate conversations. They generate online ad campaigns for car dealers and churn out government required bank documents. These are relatively high-end jobs that are now being replaced via automation.
The fear today is that there may be a very limited number of ‘steps up’ or reeducation that can take place any more to replace these jobs lost to robots or automation. And if that’s so, then what we’re witnessing is the hollowing out of the hallowed middle class. And that, in turn, could lead to an even greater polarization of jobs and incomes – creating a more deeply ‘tiered’ and increasingly separate upper and lower classes of rich and poor.
Even jobs like truck driver are at risk. We’ve all heard about Google’s driverless car experiments. According to Henrik Christensen, head of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s robotics program, “most truck drivers won’t have those jobs ten years from now.”
There are some counterpoints, the Journal article points out. For example, bank ATMs spread quickly across the U.S. over 30 years, but the number of tellers has only recently declined. But Scott Stern, an MIT economist, believes that technology may have reached a tipping point. He once thought the latest wave of automation would crest gradually, like prior technological transitions. But advances are moving at a faster speed today, he notes, with unpredictable results.
A key underlying question: How close are the breakthroughs that would enable robots to interact with humans in complex tasks? The answer to that question may well determine whether employment and income trends become worse. Some say computing capacity is the only barrier. The world, notes the Journal article, “is building vast pools of data and computing muscle that… will soon enable machines to do jobs that previously required skilled people.”
Yet others say scientists are far from translating common sense, sight and dexterity into a string of code and that, absent that, computing power won’t help.
We can only hope they’re right, but still, isn’t it only a matter of time.? The ultimate challenge is whether man can stay sufficiently ahead of the machines to preserve all those jobs and livelihoods. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
It would be hard to understate how much is riding on the outcome.