Answering this Q requires a closer examination of the numbers behind social, economic and technological trends disrupting and/or destroying certain sectors.
Asking the right Qs
Which traditional careers are the most affected by automation and robotics? How many jobs have already been replaced by automation? 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 or artificial intelligence (AI). 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. 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? For example, if you are an elementary school teacher, a robot can’t comfort a crying child but it can teach her 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, nurses, architects, engineers and many other white collar professions.
In short, your job is already being replaced, at least in part, by automation or AI. 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 AI platform or ‘Watson’ already spits out the same treatment plan as an oncologist would in 99 per cent of cancer cases.
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, Canada and the USA estimate 40-50% of current jobs will be lost within 20 years.
For example, there is a great deal of talk about self-driving vehicles replacing more than 5 million vehicle 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, what will we do with so many unemployed persons? And who will buy all the products if so many consumers are poor?
Sure, new technologies destroy many jobs while creating new ones. But most analysts think for every 10 jobs destroyed by self-driving vehicles, only 1 new job will be created in the digital technology area supporting automated vehicles.
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 car—is the manufacturer, owner or victim responsible? A lot of problems are being created as business leaps ahead with new technologies but legislators creep forward with legal and regulatory reforms, while workers and consumers are caught in the middle.
The bottom line for anyone not retiring in the next 5 years is the following: you already 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. Who will win or lose in these economic sweepstakes?
This is why politics is important because a democracy is about deciding which values and priorities are going to shape our society. 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?
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