The march of technological progress is relentless; it cannot be stopped. And much of that progress is positive – think improved health, education, communication, collaboration, environmental improvements, productivity, and so much more. Technology has the potential to change so many aspects of our lives, as has been discussed in great detail on these very pages.
But what’s the flip side of all this? Surely something, somewhere has to pay the price for technology’s relentless march? As computers and software and artificial intelligence and automation gets better and better, what gets left behind? Increasingly, it’s going to be us. Humans. People.
As technology keeps improving, we will get to the point where machines will be able to do many jobs better than humans can – a cheaper, quicker, safer and far more productive workforce awaits!
Just how many human jobs will be lost to robots is unclear. One expert has predicted that half the world’s population could be put out of work by robots within the next 30 years, while a report by the UK House of Lords’ Select Committee predicted that 35% of UK jobs could be automated within the next two decades.
This article on BusinessInsider cites a couple of other reports that seem to spell doom for many workers – one which states up to 45% of current jobs could be replaced by technology that already exists, and other which states that it could take between 10 and 20 years for 50% of jobs in the US to be replaced by technology.
Meanwhile a report from Pew Research Center pulled together opinions from various AI experts about job prospects over the next few decades. Robert Cannon, Internet law and policy expert, offered one suggestion: “Everything that can be automated will be automated. Non-skilled jobs lacking in ‘human contribution’ will be replaced by automation when the economics are favorable,” he said. The example he gives is of a key cutter at the hardware store being replaced by a robot (PDF).
Robots are already taking over some manufacturing jobs, such as car assembly. And further down the line, it’s not hard to see driverless cars and trucks taking over from taxis and haulage, and before long public transport may be dominated by driverless buses and trains, much like London’s futuristic DLR.
So far, it’s understandable to think that robot replacements may just be limited to blue collar workers or other jobs where there is a strong manual element. But that’s not the case. Call centres could become a home for robots, as long as speech recognition technology continues to improve as it has been over the last few years.
And further up the chain, many stocks are already being traded by algorithms (built by humans, of course…) and computer programs are being used in the medical profession to make diagnoses; computers can remove the human element of guesswork when it comes to a diagnosis. That’s not to say machines will soon be replacing doctors, of course. The human interaction element of the role is something that machines are a long way from being able to reproduce. Robots probably have better handwriting, though.
So, is it time to panic? Not really. I think what we’re seeing right now is a continuation of what’s happened throughout history. That Pew Research Center report I mentioned above makes the point that, “ historically [technological advances] have been a net creator of jobs.”
That’s backed up by a report from Deloitte, which examined census data from England and Wales dating back to 1871. One example the report cites is that of the laundry industry: technological advances have made indoor plumbing, electricity in the home and washing machines a reality for most people. As a result, the number of people employed in the laundry industry has fallen.
However, and this is the key, the report also points out that those same technological advances have led to the creation of other jobs: bar staff and hairdressers, for example, because people now have more disposable income. Technological advances have also helped people live longer, leading to a rise in the number of care-worker jobs available.
As the Pew Research Center report says: “Human ingenuity will create new jobs, industries, and ways to make a living, just as it has been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.”
Worried that a robot will take your job? The BBC has a guide that explains the likelihood of your job being lost to automation, and why.