A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Sep 28, 2016

How Likely Is It That A Robot Will Take Your Job?

Pretty likely. 40% of the US workforce is already contingent (meaning contract labor rather than full time employment). Only .05% of the labor force in the US, arguably one of the most digitized in the world, works in industries that didnt exist before 2000.

The question is to what degree policy makers - and the rest of humanity - are even thinking about the implications, let alone planning for their consequences. JL

Tim Dunlop reports in The Guardian:

In a recent report on the future of work, McKinsey concluded that of the 2,000 work activities they examined, 45% “could be automated using already demonstrated technology”. Not in 10 or 20 years time. Now. Whether robots take all the jobs or half of them or even “only” 20% of them, we are going to have to rethink our relationship with work and paid employment. In an era of such change, this is not wishy-washy utopianism: it is the hardest of hard-headed realism.
How likely is it that a robot will take your job?
It is a question asked with increasing urgency as everything from 3D printing to driverless cars to machine learning is rolled out by a tech industry that sees automation as almost a sacred duty.
To answer, let’s begin with a little-discussed fact. We live in a capitalist system, and the point of capitalism is to destroy jobs, not create them. That might sound counterintuitive but it is easy to explain.
Capitalism is driven by profit. Wages are a cost to be controlled in pursuit of that profit. This means that whenever capital can find a way to turn a buck without employing a human, it will take it, whether it be with robots in factories, automated checkouts at supermarkets or drones to deliver packages.In the past, this preference for machines over humans hasn’t necessarily meant a loss of jobs, and in fact, new technologies have often created new sorts of work. MIT economist David Autor points out in his influential essay Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? that with the advent of ATMs, banks reinvented their business model and ended up employing more people selling financial products.
Still, the relationship between old jobs destroyed and new jobs created isn’t always this neat. Often the process involves the loss of jobs in one sector followed by the creation of them in another as increased productivity and profits – redistributed in the form of increased wages – creates demand elsewhere in the economy.
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But this happy confluence between job creation and technology might be coming to an end, and there are two key reasons for this.
The first is that machines are getting smarter.
The first wave of automation replaced blue collars jobs in manufacturing. To some extent, the economy was able to absorb those losses through the creation of new jobs in the service sector, and to a lesser extent in the culture and knowledge industries.
The next wave of automation is going after jobs in exactly those sectors. Already law firms are using software to do work previously done by entry-level lawyers, searching case law and precedent. Media companies are using programs to write stories. An app like Xero can do work we previously paid accountants to do. The food-preparation industry is on the verge of a technological revolution.
Even Uber, which currently has several hundred thousand active drivers, is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in driverless vehicles, planning to dispose with humans as soon as possible. In fact, they are making driverless vehicles available to customers in Philadelphia as I write.
As I said, the point of capitalism is to destroy jobs, not create them.
The second big change is post-industrialisation. Wealth is being created – not by making and selling physical things – but in areas of knowledge, information and financialisation.
These areas simply do not need as many workers as traditional employers. Where Kodak used to employ 140,000 people and was valued at $28bn (and is now bankrupt thanks to digitisation), Instagram was sold to Facebook in 2012 for a billion dollars when it (Instagram) employed 12 people. Facebook itself is the sixth-largest company in the US, but it employs a mere 12,000 people full time. Compare that to, say, General Motors, which during the 1980s employed 349,000 workers in the US alone.
Google, one of the richest corporations on the planet, only employs about 55,000 people worldwide.
You get the picture.
In a recent report on the future of work, McKinsey and Company concluded that of the 2,000 work activities they examined, 45% “could be automated using already demonstrated technology”.
So not in 10 or 20 years time. Now.
A report by the Oxford Martin School concluded the number of workers “shifting into new industries is strikingly small: in 2010, only 0.5% of the US labour force is employed in industries that did not exist in 2000 [so] the companies leading the digital revolution have created few employment opportunities”.
The good news is that humans, for a while yet, are going to have the edge over machines in areas where work is non-routinised; that demand creativity and empathy; and in areas of artistic expression and practice.
This means tradespeople – from plumbers to hairdressers – are likely to be relatively insulated from technological replacement.
It means that Stem skills (science, technology, engineering and maths) will be good things to have. Amazon, for instance, employs hundreds of PhDs in mathematics, working on logistics for their ever-growing delivery services.But it isn’t going to be all tech all the time.
In a development rarely discussed by politicians – who tend to dismiss the arts as soft and impractical – it means that higher education in arts-related subjects, including ethics, critical thinking and social relationships are also likely to be valued and in (relative) demand. An ability to deal with ambiguity, complexity and diversity will be desirable, and as CEO Steve Yi of advertising platform MediaAlpha has said: “In the dynamic environment of the technology sector, there is not typically one right answer when you make decisions. There are just different shades of how correct you might be.”
Facebook would do well to heed such advice. They are brilliant at solving the engineering problems associated with running the biggest social media platform in the universe, but dreadful at defining the community standards that govern what appears in their news feed. A few more arts majors – from anthropologists to journalists – would help them deal with the grey areas that inevitably arise.
Professor Stuart Cunningham of the Queensland University of Technology points out that creative industries are likely to be a growing source of employment.“It’s more than just about creative industries being robot-proofing. [Creative] is a significant sector of the economy and it’s growing,” he recently told Mumbrella.
Predictably perhaps, Steve Jobs was ahead of the game when he said in 2010 at the launch of the iPad: “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”
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It is also reasonable to conclude that performing arts will no longer be the bane of parents who have traditionally told their artistic kids to “get a proper job”. When my son decided to pursue a career in dance, I shuddered a little, but maybe I shouldn’t have worried.
In the Oxford Martin report that ranks 702 current jobs in terms of their likelihood to be automated, dancer and choreographer are among those least likely to be affected, considerably less than “proper” jobs like lawyer and accountant.
As my son says, “Who wants to watch a robot dance Swan Lake?”
But remember, even with such skills, you will still need people with enough disposable income to be able to pay to see them. You, personally, may be insulated from technological unemployment, but you will not be insulated from its effects across the economy.
There is one further structural change that is also likely to alter the nature of the labour market. Where firms were once stand-alone silos dedicated to doing one key thing and so benefitted from a full-time workforce, they are increasingly parts of networks that come together on the basis of given projects, pulling in specialist workers on a short-term basis.
That sort of economy will tend towards casualisation.This is happening already. Recent figures show that 40% of the US workforce is contingent. Australia’s most recent job’s figures show that 86% of jobs created in the last year were part-time.
Where does all this leave us?
My view is that we have to be cautious about predicting the future, of course we do.
Nonetheless, the indicators are such that we should take seriously the idea that the era of full-time employment that can support a person at a comfortable standard of living across a lifetime may be coming to an end.
The approach we should be taking is not to find ways that we can compete with machines – that is a losing battle – but to find ways in which wealth can be distributed other than through wages. This will almost certainly involve something like a universal basic income.
Whether robots take all the jobs or half of them or even “only” 20% of them, we are going to have to rethink our relationship with work and paid employment. In an era of such change, this is not wishy-washy utopianism: it is the hardest of hard-headed realism.

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