The Robot Apocalypse and the Workplace
The troubling news, brought to light by reputable scholars from Oxford University, broke five years ago.
Within two decades, almost half the jobs in the U.S. will be done by artificial intelligence. Headlines across the country repeated the claim, which — too few people ever learned — actually wasn’t what the scholars said. In their report, the researchers, Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, also made clear that “we make no attempt to estimate how many jobs will actually be automated. The actual extent and pace of computerization will depend on several additional factors which were left unaccounted for.”
What they really predicted was that some of the tasks being performed within 47 percent of existing jobs would be automated, conjuring up images of a Robot Apocalypse wreaking havoc in the workplace. They made no claim that the job itself would be eliminated, only that it would change. “It is just different,” Byron Reese writes in The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity.
Maybe the report was received as it was because people in a worrisome job market are already living with the fear of being downsized, laid off or replaced by a machine. Plus, the predictions about the future of work can be scary, and those who communicate about business also wonder what the changes will mean for them and their jobs. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics generally can be unsettling concepts, especially for those with liberal arts educations.
We’re entering a “post-robotic economy,” says David Pogue, the tech critic for Yahoo Finance and a Scientific American columnist who spoke at the Council’s Spring Executive Meeting in mid-April. Quoting that 47 percent figure, Pogue describes a worst case scenario of 70 percent unemployment by 2030. America’s 250,000 taxi drivers — if you include Uber and Lyft — will lose their occupations as we rely more on driverless cars. Jobs for 3.5 million truck drivers will also disappear. Before long, says Pogue, none of us will need to buy our own cars because we will be able to go wherever we want on demand. We won’t ever again have to go to a car lot, get a driver’s license or buy car insurance. (Sorry, Flo.)
The jobs of five million retail workers will also be rendered obsolete as Amazon Go’s cashier-less stores become the model for other retailers — including those in the food-service industry. Informed observers, including those developing the technology making these changes possible, have been predicting that such futuristic automation will have a firm grip by 2021. “What’s significant,” Pogue says, “is that this date has been cited for years now, and it has not receded. Dates like this have a way of being pushed back to a later date. But that isn’t the case here. The predictions remain as originally stated, which means things are on track.”
But not so fast. There will be significant shifts in coming years, “and it’s going to be tough,” Pogue says. “But we’ve been through comparable changes in the past, and jobs once thought essential were no longer needed.” (The classic case is buggy-whip manufacturers.) Capital freed up when some forms of employment become obsolete will be invested in other enterprises. Capitalism is defined by its responsiveness to new conditions and its resilience.
Three years after Frey and Osborne’s study, the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development issued its own report with a far less scary conclusion. This report said 9 percent of jobs in member countries could be lost to computerization — a prediction that seems supported, in general terms, by one released about the same time by McKinsey & Co.
Yes, some jobs will be lost, but “a focus on occupations is misleading,” the McKinsey study said. “Very few occupations will be automated in their entirety in the near or medium term. Rather, certain activities are more likely to be automated, requiring entire business processes to be transformed and jobs performed by people to be redefined, much like the bank teller’s job was redefined with the advent of ATMs.”
Mark P. Mills, the author of Work in the Age of Robots, CEO of the Digital Power Group and a faculty fellow at Northwestern Unviersity’s engineering school, is actually optimistic about job growth in coming years. “A lot of smart people are saying really silly things about this subject,” Mills says. “There’s zero evidence that robotics will lead to massive unemployment, any more than previous technological advances have done so. Airplanes didn’t ‘replace’ trains. People just travel in different ways these days, but trains continue to operate.”
“Sixty percent of the jobs that existed in 1960 don’t exist today, but we still have more or less full employment,” Mills says. “Typing pools went away, and not so long ago there were huge rooms full of draftsmen in every factory. It is always easier to see which jobs are lost than to forecast the jobs that are created. It wasn’t possible in 1960 to know that millions of people would be employed in manufacturing computers; it isn’t easy to realize how many jobs will be created from a technology that already exists and isn’t fully developed. One example is bioelectronics, where one day soon you will swallow a sensor in a pill that tells you a lot of important information about your health — a consumable computer that you swallow.”
Technological advances make us more productive. “Right now, it takes two nurses to move an elderly patient in a hospital,” Mills says. What if we could move them with a robotic wheelchair as already exists in Japan? Does this eliminate the job of the nurses who moved the patient? Of course not. It frees them up to do more important things than picking up people and moving them from place to place. It makes them more productive. It would also have the added benefit of fewer workers’ comp claims because the single biggest workers’ comp claim by nurses is the result of back problems.”
Lara Brown, director of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, makes a useful distinction between the kinds of skills that will no longer be needed and those that will be in even greater demand. Brown, who also spoke at the Council’s Spring Executive Meeting, agrees that a number of traditional blue-collar jobs in transportation, production and construction will decline significantly.
The ‘Soft Skills’
“But what will be needed,” Brown says, “are jobs that require the ‘soft skills,’ and especially the ability to communicate.” Jobs in education and associated professions, for example, will increase. “There will be a greater need for librarians,” Brown says. Students of library science now are required to study information technology. “That’s because the job of the librarian when you come down to it, is really the management of information.”
Matt Eventoff, owner of Princeton Public Speaking, which offers communication and messaging services to business leaders, says many of the technological advances that are reshaping our work are really just tools. “I’m a big believer in technology, which can help tremendously with human interaction,” Eventoff says. “But they’re aids to human communication, not replacements for it. PowerPoint and other platforms like it can help with a presentation, but what matters ultimately is the human aspect — the face-to-face communication and not the tools. People will still attend conferences, boards of directors will still want to be presented to.”
A Boon for Public Affairs?
Brown is right about librarians. “Librarians have tremendous institutional knowledge, but that knowledge exists within the person, which cannot be replaced,” Eventoff says. “You can use an algorithm to know what is in a given Senate bill, but that cannot compare to the knowledge possessed by someone who has worked in the Senate for 30 years and will know the stories behind the bills that went before, that provide context. Those stories can’t be captured in a bill summary. That kind of knowledge, not to mention communication skills, will always be in demand in public affairs.”
Good communication skills will always be in demand, period, says Tony Wagner, a senior research fellow at Harvard’s Learning Policy Institute. In researching his book, The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need — And What We Can Do About It, Wagner was struck by how often business leaders complained about recruits’ “fuzzy thinking and inability to articulate their thoughts.” The complaints weren’t recruits’ “ability to use grammar and punctuation correctly, or to spell, but how to communicate clearly verbally, in writing or while presenting. If you have great ideas but you can’t communicate them, then you’re lost.”
Mills says the belief that schools should be turning out more and more students with STEM specialties is misguided. “Yes, right now there is a strong demand for STEM jobs, but that overlooks the fact that there are still more farm workers than people writing code, for example, and there is every reason to believe that this demand is a short-term one. Do we really need more and more people writing code? Absolutely not, because artificial intelligence will do that for us.”
Our ‘Weird Affection’ for STEM
In the early days of automobiles, Mills says, you needed a good deal of mechanical knowledge to operate a car. “Now that they are computerized, anyone can drive a car. The goal of computing is to democratize these technical functions so that anyone can operate a laptop. I think our weird affection for STEM skills is an artifact of our being in awe of how cool all this stuff is. But the idea that you need a millennial nephew to help you use your cell phone doesn’t tell us anything about the future of work; it only tells us we need better cell phones, which we will soon have. Will we need infinitely more people doing this stuff for us? No. We will need people who have some familiarity with these processes — but who are also flexible and can reason.”
Analytical skills — meaning the ability to apply human understanding to raw data—will be required. “The ability to gather and measure data has never been greater,” says Karen Russo, president of K. Russo Consulting, a placement firm with offices in the U.S. and Mexico. “But you still need a person to look at that data, make sense of it and make strategic decisions based on it. The ability to think critically, to research, write and tell a story will always be in demand. The ability to analyze the results of those decisions will also remain valuable.”
Brown sees the future in similar terms. There will be changes in the nature of employment, but also in the education required of employees. “Public affairs professionals — who generally come out of the liberal arts — will need to become more fluent in data and statistics,” Brown says. “Others, who come to the profession with a business orientation, will need to become more familiar with corporate social responsibility, communications and the ‘softer’ disciplines. Artificial intelligence will be able to think and analyze. But it is unlikely to be wise, anytime soon.”