Waiting for the Robotics Apocalypse

Stephen DeAngelis

September 18, 2017

Golden anniversaries are generally something to celebrate. You can be forgiven, however, if you missed the 50th anniversary of the Automated Teller Machine (ATM). James Shepherd-Barron, son of John Adrian Shepherd-Barron (the ATM’s inventor), writes, “When the ATM came along in 1967, consumers experienced not just an encounter with a new technology, but an entirely new way of relating to machines. Initially skeptical of having to push buttons and remember personal identification numbers, the machine’s no-nonsense exterior and intuitive user interface eventually won people over. The ATM blazed a trail towards today’s 24/7 ‘always-on’ culture.”[1] The ATM also raised the specter of a robotics apocalypse. Financial Times columnist Tim Harford (@TimHarford) observes, “The cash machine turned 50 [in June 2017] — old enough, I think, to teach us a few lessons about the dawning of a new machine age. It seems a good advertisement for practical innovation that makes life a little easier. But with its very name a promise to replace a human being, the ‘automated teller machine’ seems a harbinger of mass technological unemployment.”[2] To be fair, Shepherd-Barron’s invention was initially dubbed the De La Rue Automatic Cash System (DACS) machine. It was renamed Barclaycash when Barclays Bank installed the first machine in North London; but, the “Automated Teller Machine” moniker is the one that took hold. The introduction of the ATM seemed to herald the end of the human bank teller. But as James Pethokoukis (@JimPethokoukis), an analyst with American Enterprise Institute reminds us, “That’s not what happened.”[3] He explains, even though some 400,000 ATMs are installed in the United States, between 1970 and 2010, the number of U.S. bank tellers increased from less than 300,000 to around 600,000.

Robotics and Jobs Sustainability

Does the tale about ATMs and tellers mean we can stop worrying about robots coming for our jobs? The simple answer is, No. The lesson that should be learned is that relieving humans of some tasks opens up opportunities to leverage human skills in new or different ways. Since men started inventing machines, technology has displaced people who previously performed the jobs for which the machines were designed. Generally, automating routine, monotonous jobs has been a good thing. That trend is not going to stop. Andrew Ng (@AndrewYNg), a well-known AI expert and founder of Coursera, notes, “The broader pattern is that in any task in which a lot of people are doing relatively routine, repetitive work, that creates a very strong incentive for AI teams to come and automate that task. There is one other rule of thumb, which is that almost anything a typical human can do with less than one second of mental thought, we can probably now or in the near future automate using AI.”[4] James Surowiecki (@JamesSurowiecki), author of The Wisdom of Crowds, writes, “Over the past few years, it has become conventional wisdom that dramatic advances in robotics and artificial intelligence have put us on the path to a jobless future.”[5] After citing some of the ominous studies making dire predictions about future joblessness, he writes, “This anxiety about automation is understandable in light of the hair-raising progress that tech companies have made lately in robotics and artificial intelligence.” Nevertheless, he believes the job picture may be brighter than people predict. He explains:

“The job market [shows no] signs of an incipient robopocalypse. Unemployment is below 5 percent, and employers in many states are complaining about labor shortages, not labor surpluses. And while millions of Americans dropped out of the labor force in the wake of the Great Recession, they’re now coming back — and getting jobs. Even more strikingly, wages for ordinary workers have risen as the labor market has improved. Granted, the wage increases are meager by historical standards, but they’re rising faster than inflation and faster than productivity. That’s something that wouldn’t be happening if human workers were on the fast track to obsolescence. If automation were truly remaking the job market, you’d also expect to see a lot of what economists call job churn as people move from company to company and industry to industry after their jobs have been destroyed. But we’re seeing the opposite of that.”

Certainly what Surowiecki describes is good news. The question remains: Will good news about jobs continue? That question is not easily answered. We are only in the beginning of Cognitive Computing Era. As machines get smarter and more connected, it is impossible to predict how their rise will affect job prospects for humans. Will jobs be lost to automation and robotics? Almost certainly. Surowiecki explains:

“Automation will indeed destroy many current jobs in the coming decades. As [Andrew] McAfee says, ‘When it comes to things like AI, machine learning, and self-driving cars and trucks, it’s still early. Their real impact won’t be felt for years yet.’ What’s not obvious, though, is whether the impact of these innovations on the job market will be much bigger than the massive impact of technological improvements in the past. The outsourcing of work to machines is not, after all, new — it’s the dominant motif of the past 200 years of economic history, from the cotton gin to the washing machine to the car. Over and over again, as vast numbers of jobs have been destroyed, others have been created. And over and over, we’ve been terrible at envisioning what kinds of new jobs people would end up doing.”

Will those job losses amount to a robotics apocalypse? Not if we’re smart about how we leverage smart machines.

Human/Machine Collaboration

The best possible future is one in which humans and machines collaborate. David Weldon (@DWeldon646) reports many workers are open to such collaboration. “While many recent studies have suggested there is wide-spread fear that artificial intelligence and automation will be major job slashing technologies,” he writes, “a new report from Randstad US contradicts those conclusions. The 2017 Randstad Employer Brand Research found that only 14 percent of U.S. employees worry that automation will take their job away, and nearly one-third (30 percent) say they think automation will make their job better.”[6] Sean Captain (@seancaptain) reports Siemens is designing a factory focused on enhancing and leveraging human/machine collaboration.[7] He goes on to note that a future characterized by human/machine collaboration is a more likely future than one dominated by robotics alone. He writes, “A McKinsey study …, “A Future That Works: Automation, Employment, And Productivity,” looked at 800 occupations and found that about half of the tasks workers do could be automated. But less than 5% of careers would be completely eliminated. In most cases, computers and robots would be picking up parts of people’s jobs. ‘People will need to continue working alongside machines to produce the growth in per capita GDP to which countries around the world aspire,’ says the report.”

Workers losing their jobs will have to be retrained and reskilled to assume new positions. Even workers who keep their jobs, but must collaborate with machines, will require retraining and reskilling. Fortunately, Weldon reports, “Along with their optimism toward automation, many workers also report a willingness to retrain or ‘up-skill’ in order to maintain their current job status, the study revealed. Half of the respondents (51 percent) agreed they would be happy to retrain if they were being paid the same or more than their current salary.” Captain adds, “In the long run, humans will have to progress to more creative, intellectual work.” If you are waiting for the robotics apocalypse, hopefully it will be a long wait. People concerned about losing their jobs to robotics should start thinking about how they can equip themselves to work with rather than against smart machines.

[1] James Shepherd-Barron, “Meet the true star of financial innovation — the humble ATM,” Financial Times, 22 June 2017.
[2] Tim Harford, “We are still waiting for the robot revolution,” Financial Times, 30 June 2017.
[3] James Pethokoukis, “What the story of ATMs and bank tellers reveals about the ‘rise of the robots’ and jobs,” AEIdeas, 6 June 2016.
[4] Jason Dean, “The Optimistic Promise of Artificial Intelligence,” The Wall Street Journal, 13 June 2017.
[5] James Surowiecki, “The Great Tech Panic: Robots Won’t Take All Our Jobs,” Wired, September 2017.
[6] David Weldon, “Majority of workers welcome job impacts of AI, automation,” Information Management, 11 August 2017.
[7] Sean Captain, “This AI Factory Boss Tells Robots And Humans How To Work Together,” Fast Company, 7 August 2017.