It would be foolish to argue that some jobs now being performed by humans aren’t going to be lost to technology (be it hardware (e.g., robots) or software). One of the motivations behind the advance of technology has always been to get machines to perform work that is repetitive or a drudgery for humans. That motivation will continue to drive technological progress and people holding down those kinds of jobs are at risk of losing them. In the past, however, new technologies have also been job creators; sometimes creating entirely new industries. But some analysts are asserting that the next wave of technological advancement will be different — more jobs will be lost than will be created and this will create a societal crisis. Other analysts dismiss such claims and assert that the historical pattern will continue. Frankly, no one knows which camp is correct. Let’s look at the arguments from both sides starting with those that predict doom and gloom.
Derek Thompson (@) writes, “It is an invisible force that goes by many names. Computerization. Automation. Artificial intelligence. Technology. Innovation. And, everyone’s favorite, ROBOTS. Whatever name you prefer, some form of it has been stoking progress and killing jobs — from seamstresses to paralegals — for centuries.” Thompson doesn’t state that lost jobs have been replaced by new but different jobs, but he implies it by writing, “This time is different.” He explains:
“Nearly half of American jobs today could be automated in ‘a decade or two,’ according to a new paper by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, discussed recently in The Economist. The question is: Which half? Another way of posing the same question is: Where do machines work better than people? Tractors are more powerful than farmers. Robotic arms are stronger and more tireless than assembly-line workers. But in the past 30 years, software and robots have thrived at replacing a particular kind of occupation: the average-wage, middle-skill, routine-heavy worker, especially in manufacturing and office admin. Indeed, Frey and Osborne project that the next wave of computer progress will continue to shred human work where it already has: manufacturing, administrative support, retail, and transportation. Most remaining factory jobs are ‘likely to diminish over the next decades,’ they write. Cashiers, counter clerks, and telemarketers are similarly endangered.”
Although Gartner analysts aren’t quite as pessimistic as Frey (@carlbfrey) and Osborne (@maosbot), Patrick Thibodeau (@DCgov) reports they still predict “things like robots and drones [will be] replacing a third of all workers by 2025.” Gartner analysts made this prediction at last fall’s Symposium/ITxpo. During that event, Peter Sondergaard, Gartner’s research director, told the audience that “smart machines are an emerging ‘super class’ of technologies that perform a wide variety of work, both the physical and the intellectual kind. … This cognitive capability in software will extend to other areas, including financial analysis, medical diagnostics and data analytic jobs of all sorts.” I agree with the assessment that cognitive capabilities are going to take automation into new areas. In article published by Manufacturing and Distribution Executive magazine, I wrote, “I predict that cognitive computing technologies will be at the heart of every successful digital enterprise deserving of that name. The combination of artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and advanced mathematics is powerful. It means that companies can reason and generate insights from data in ways that have never before been possible. Every successful business in the future is going to be a digital enterprise.” The question remains: Will new technologies create enough new jobs to keep humans fully employed?
The editors at Scientific American note, “Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both business researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, … argue that technological advances are destroying jobs, particularly low-skill jobs, faster than they are creating them.” The SA editors argue that no one real knows what’s happening because “our understanding of the relation between technological advances and employment is limited by outdated metrics. … Without such data, we will never properly understand how technology is changing the nature of work in the 21st century — and what, if anything, should be done about it.” That’s one reason the debate continues to rage. Timothy B. Lee (@binarybits) believes that human jobs will never fully be assumed by machines because machines aren’t human. “Being able to act like a human being is an essential qualification for a large fraction of the labor market,” he writes. He elaborates:
“We might be able to design a robotic nurse capable of performing the medical functions currently performed by nurses, but patients are likely to prefer to interact with human beings in the hospital. Computers are good at math, but children are unlikely to ever respond to a virtual math teacher as well as they will to a flesh-and-blood one. A computer might be better than any human being at enumerating the virtues of a product and answering technical questions, but no computer is going to develop the kind of customer rapport that a good human salesman can. This isn’t because computers aren’t ‘smart enough.’ It’s because raw intelligence isn’t the only qualification for these jobs. Human beings are social creatures. We care about our interactions with other people in ways that we’ll never care about our interactions with machines, no matter how intelligent they might be. Already, jobs with a social component account for a large fraction of the workforce. As machines become ever better at performing purely mechanical tasks like driving a truck or assembling an iPhone, the fraction of jobs with a significant social component will approach 100 percent.”
Even Lee, however, doesn’t venture a guess about whether enough of those jobs (i.e., those with a significant social component) are going to be created to avoid a devastating labor and social crisis. Aaron Smith (@aaron_w_smith) and Janna Anderson, analysts with the Pew Research Center, report that experts who believe that there won’t be job crisis generally argue five specific points. They are:
- Argument #1: Throughout history, technology has been a job creator—not a job destroyer.
- Argument #2: Advances in technology create new jobs and industries even as they displace some of the older ones.
- Argument #3: There are certain jobs that only humans have the capacity to do.
- Argument #4: The technology will not advance enough in the next decade to substantially impact the job market.
- Argument #5: Our social, legal, and regulatory structures will minimize the impact on employment.
Ben Rossi (@BenRossi89) can be counted among the optimists when it comes to new technologies and job creation. He agrees with Lee (and Argument #3 above) that some jobs will always require the human touch. “It is highly unlikely that AI will ever be able to display the creative and intuitive capabilities needed to match humans at the tasks we exceed in,” Rossi writes, “those that are not always black and white, right or wrong. Fundamentally, the service industry is about people solving problems for people. Human issues need human solutions. AI will only ever be able to support that problem-solving structure; it cannot replace it.”
There is new evidence that technology might not be quite the job stealer that that pessimists believe it will be. Timothy Aeppel (@) reports that new analysis by Brookings Institution analysts Mark Muro (@MarkMuro1) and Scott Andes (@scott_andes), found that “some countries that have adopted robots much faster than the U.S. — including Germany and South Korea — saw far smaller losses in jobs between 1996 and 2012. Meanwhile, both Britain and Australia have lagged the U.S. on robots, yet suffered deeper job losses. They then asked the question a different way: How many jobs would each country expect to lose if the drop in factory employment was proportional to the rise in robots? Again, there’s no clear linkage. ‘By this metric the United States should have lost one-third more manufacturing jobs than it actually did and Germany should have lost 50 percent more, while the United Kingdom lost five times more than it should have,’ they wrote.” The fact that some people are or will be getting along with machine co-workers will provide only cold comfort to individuals who have been displaced by technology.
It remains to be seen which camp’s predictions are going to prove more accurate. Both sides agree that technological advances are not going to slow down and, as a result, the employment landscape is going to undergo some tectonic shifts. We can only hope that some very smart people start thinking about the implications of a society characterized by chronic unemployment issues and how those issues can be fruitfully addressed. The economy can only grow if consumers have money to spend. If a large number of potential consumers are unemployed, they will have little or no discretionary funds to help grow the economy. If that’s the future that emerges, then companies that displace workers in the pursuit of efficiency and profits will be digging their own graves. I believe there is a future in which machines and humans can work in harmony and that jobs can be created in new industries to help maintain full employment. It will take hard work and imagination; but it can and must be done.
 “What Jobs Will the Robots Take?” The Atlantic, 23 January 2014.
 “One in three jobs will be taken by software or robots by 2025,” Computerworld, 6 October 2014.
 “Not Science Fiction: Cognitive Computing & Artificial Intelligence,” Manufacturing and Distribution Executive, Spring 2015.
 “Will Automation Take Our Jobs?” Scientific American, 15 July 2014.
 “No, artificial intelligence isn’t going to take all of our jobs,” The Washington Post, 23 October 2013.
 “AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs,” Pew Research Center, 6 August 2014.
 “Don’t worry, artificial intelligence is not a job stealer – it’s a job enabler,” Information Age, 2 January 2015.
 “Robots May Look Like Job-Killers, But It’s Hard to See in the Numbers,” The Wall Street Journal, 30 April 2015.