Is Job Loss from Robots real or hype?

Robots taking jobs

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  How many jobs have already been replaced by automation?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?

If you are concerned about your job security or the job prospects of your children or interested in this topic, please comment here or track these trends and issues by subscribing to UnDone online magazine:


Doom, boom or in-between for 2017 jobs?

Future of work

Where will the jobs be this year? What are the jobs of the future? What will they pay? These were just a few questions posed to me on Boxing Day by a technology reporter based in New York.

But who can read the future accurately? For example, the top 10 in-demand occupations of 2016 had not yet been invented in 2000, jobs like Gamification Specialist.

What we can do is look at broad social, technological and economic trends and draw some conclusions that may assist you with your career decision-making over the next year or so.

On the doom side

The spectacular economic growth of the past 100 years that was fuelled by technological innovation in electricity, telephones, motorized transport, computers and high finance is now spent. Since the economic meltdown of 2008, the economies of the West have been stagnant due to job loss, lower levels of real earnings, higher poverty rates among working people, cuts to benefits—leaving many struggling to afford the basics.

Of course, loss for some is gain for others. Banks and lenders flourish in such times, as do certain retail chains, entertainment franchises, real estate niches, and other sectors.

Governments will struggle to tame the unruly forces of automation and globalization that have shredded job security as the foundation of liberal democracies for decades, as global inequality between the haves and have-nots widens and aging populations put increasing pressure on taxpayers

In short, good secure jobs will be hard to come by and wages will not grow significantly in most sectors, so public and personal debt will skyrocket.

On the boom side

Many pundits claim the future looks bright — driven by a new age of invention, especially in areas such as computing, robotics, materials and bioengineering.

Although young adults are finding expensive education does not necessarily lead to lucrative careers, those that choose STEM education are more likely to find occupations in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

Work and gains are real and growing, according to this view, but they don’t show up in GDP because the myriad ways we serve and entertain each other on the web can’t be measured in conventional terms.

As wealth and education spread to Asia and other formerly poor regions of the world, the idea is that even we in the world’s richest nations will benefit. For example, certain stock markets and real estate sectors are booming due to foreign investors.

Your future

Wherever you fit on the spectrum between doom or boom, you are unlikely to experience a great deal of change in 2017. If you have a job now, you will likely keep that job throughout the coming year.

But the disruptions that are now working their way through our economies will affect you in surprising and unexpected ways the next 5-10 years, that is guaranteed.