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Is Job Loss from Robots Real or Hype?

By George Dutch, MA

 

Answering this question requires a closer examination of the numbers driving social, economic and technological trends disrupting and/or destroying certain sectors.

Which traditional careers are the most affected by automation, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI)? How many jobs have already been replaced by them? Which sectors are being disrupted most and in what ways?

Many routine tasks in manufacturing and service sectors once performed by humans are now being performed by automation. But there is a gap between what is actually happening and what could happen.

What is actually happening

According to estimates from the International Federation of Robotics, there are currently between 1.5 and 1.75 million industrial robots in operation, a number that could increase to 4 to 6 million by 2025.[1]  These are fully autonomous machines that don’t require human operators to build cars, computers and other produces because they can be programmed to perform tasks — such as welding, assembling, handling materials, or packaging.

Think about your own job. How many of the tasks are routine or repetitive? If you are an elementary school teacher, for instance, a robot can’t comfort a crying child but it can teach children to hold basic conversations in a foreign language or perform simple math equations or learn to play an instrument—all of which are already being done through online applications.

If you are a lawyer, a robot can’t stand up in court and argue on your behalf (at least, not yet) but a computer with artificial intelligence is already pouring over thousands of digital documents, flagging potentially relevant ones and automating a lot of legal legwork. The same goes for accountants, financial advisors, stock brokers, career advisors, nurses, architects, engineers and many other white collar professions.

In short, your job is already being replaced, at least in part, by technology. And, even if a computer can’t do your job just yet, it may be able to teach itself to do it. Algorithms that analyze routine tasks and recommend options are called ‘bots’ and they are infiltrating all professions as businesses try to figure out which tasks are better done by machines or people.

For example, when you go to your family doctor and describe a cluster of symptoms,

s/he diagnoses the problem and recommends a treatment or referral to a specialist. IBM’s artificial intelligence (AI) platform or ‘Watson’ already spits out the same treatment plan as an oncologist would in 99 per cent of cancer cases.[2]  Healthcare is expected to suffer the highest number of job losses in the next five years, followed jointly by energy and financial services.

What could happen

Here, the line between what is real and what is hype is harder to find. Certain think tanks in the UK[3], Canada[4] and the USA[5] estimate 40-50% will be lost within 20 years.

For example, there is a great deal of talk about self-driving vehicles replacing 5 million transport drivers in Canada and the USA within 10 years. Many companies with fleets of trucks, taxis, trains, buses, airplanes, or ships would gladly replace drivers with efficient machines because it would increase profits by reducing labour costs and raising productivity.

But, if these jobs disappear within the next 10 years, what will we do with so many unemployed persons? And who will buy all the products if so many consumers are unemployed and poor.

Sure, new technologies create jobs while destroying others but the National Bureau of Economic Research reports an average loss of 6.2 workers in the surrounding area of any factory that added 1 robot to their operation, and many analysts predict a similar net loss of jobs for the mass adoption of driverless vehicles.[6]

What is possible technologically or desirable economically is not necessarily inevitable. So, in practice, not all of these jobs may actually be automated for a variety of economic, legal and regulatory reasons.

Here’s a simple example:  if someone is hit by a driverless vehicle—is the manufacturer, owner or victim responsible? As business leaps ahead with new technologies, legislators creep forward with legal and regulatory reforms that are needed to protect workers and consumers caught in the middle.

 

Conclusion

The bottom line for anyone not retiring in the next 5 years is the following: you are or soon will be doing different types of work, doing less work, or losing your job…because it’s not certain that these new technologies will create more jobs than they destroy.

 

Big questions are being asked: What is the meaning of work when most jobs are performed by machines? How should we share the profits generated by robots and automation? Where will new jobs come from? What are humans for? How we answer them will determine our future.

 

References

[1] Executive Summary, World Robotics 2016 Industrial Robots, p.17.  URL: https://ifr.org/img/uploads/Executive_Summary_WR_Industrial_Robots_20161.pdf

[2] IBM’s Watson AI Recommends Same Treatment as Doctors in 99% of Cancer Cases, Futurism. URL: https://futurism.com/ibms-watson-ai-recommends-same-treatment-as-doctors-in-99-of-cancer-cases/

[3]UK Economic Outlook: Prospects for the UK economy and housing market after Brexit. PWC. July 2017. URL: https://www.pwc.co.uk/services/economics-policy/insights/uk-economic-outlook.html

[4] Future-proof: Preparing young Canadians for the future of work. Brookfield Institute. URL: http://brookfieldinstitute.ca/research-analysis/futureproof/

[5] Robots and Jobs: Evidence from US Labor Markets. URL: http://www.nber.org/papers/w23285

[6] Ibid

 

AUTHOR BIO

George Dutch, MA, thinks and writes about the intersection between knowledge, work and power. He collates an online mag UnDone that tracks relevant trends & issues. He lives in Ottawa where he has been a career counselor in private practice with JobJoy.com for 25 years. 

Profile photo of Lucie Morillon
Lucie Morillon
Lucie Morillon is the Bilingual Content & Communications Co-ordinator for CERIC. With a passion for quality content, she connects with her online communities and provides strong resources to engage members – and always encourages new ones to get involved. She identifies, creates and curates the content destined for the ContactPoint website, the weekly CareerWise newsletter and Careering magazine.

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