America at work
Rise of the robot: Will intelligent machines kill the global workforce?
Takara Small | April 12, 2016

The idea that intelligent machines could one day replace humans is nothing new. Hollywood has long been obsessed with the idea of smart or “thinking” robots capable of performing human-like tasks – think of Rosie on The Jetsons, Blade Runner and C-3PO in Star Wars.

But could robots take over a majority of human jobs? Or will increasingly intelligent machines create more jobs than they render obsolete?

The answer to the first question is simple: Robots are already replacing humans, particularly in manufacturing. Machines can now clean homes, ring up groceries and even dispense medicine. Meanwhile the costs of robots are falling, and machines are taking on more “human” responsibilities, such as testing and inspecting products.

“The reality is, machines have been taking jobs away from people for years,” says Moshe Vardi, a computer science professor at Rice University. “It’s very dramatic to think about Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator walking around, but machines today really can take your job.”

The rate of innovation has increased rapidly over the last 10 years, Vardi says, and with that acceleration comes a tension. Big companies such as Amazon and Airbus are actively looking for machines to do tasks humans currently do. Both companies have held contests inviting engineers to present robots that can do repetitive tasks – moving items off of shelves for Amazon and drilling holes for the screws that will ultimately hold together an airplane for Airbus. Even as these companies dig deeper into robots, scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science voiced concern earlier this year over the threat of mass unemployment from robots and artificial intelligence.

The future is here

Within our lifetimes, everyday tasks such as operating a vehicle – think Google’s driverless cars – will become automated, displacing people who filled a wide variety of transportation-related jobs, including taxi drivers and delivery personnel. Some people say that new technologies open up opportunities for highly skilled workers, but how realistic is it that the same people who are losing jobs will find new ones in these fields?

“We’re going to have automated driving within the next 10 years, and within 25 years, driving will be fully automated,” Vardi says. “Ten percent of all jobs in America involve driving. Will all these people become web designers? Doubtful. Everyone says technology will generate jobs, but will it generate jobs for everyone?”

The World Economic Forum (WEF) investigated the potential effects of automation on 15 economies, including the U.S., U.K., China and Germany, which together account for 65% of the global workforce. They determined the global economy will suffer a net loss of at least 5.1 million jobs to automation by 2020, and create two million new positions.

The future need not be a dystopian nightmare for workers, but they will have to learn to adapt to the new demands of an ever-changing economy. Just as they always have, businesses will have to think a few chess moves ahead about potentially disruptive technology that could drive them out of business. And governments, particularly the public agencies that focus on employment and education, must also keep automation in mind when setting public policy.

“In such a rapidly evolving employment landscape, the ability to anticipate and prepare for future skills requirements, job content and the aggregate effect on employment is increasingly critical for businesses, governments and individuals in order to fully seize the opportunities presented by these trends—and to mitigate undesirable outcomes,” WEF founder Klaus Schwab and board member Richard Samans say in the 2016 report.

Douglas Rushkoff agrees. His latest book, “Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus,” delves into the digital economy, automation and how technology is impacting society. “All is not lost. I don’t want people to despair too much,” he said a recent interview. “[But people] have to realize that we’ve gotten to a turning point in our society.”

Learn to code?

So, what now? Should everyone sign up for coding classes or scramble to add some shiny new digital skills to their resumes? Rushkoff thinks not. He compares coding skills to knowing how to use Microsoft Office in his early years as a temp. The skill was unique for a time, but it eventually became commonplace.

“Coding will become easier, and our kids will eventually come through school knowing how to do it,” he explains. “It’s an important thing to learn when you’re living in a world with code, but to think you’re going to learn to code and it’ll somehow keep you employed? No. It can extend the job life of someone in their 40s or 50s until retirement, but it’s not a savior. Especially when there’s one coding job for 10 people.”

Wait and see

It’s impossible to know for sure what jobs will survive in an increasingly machine-dominated future. After all, technology has created entirely new categories of jobs in recent years – social media manager, anyone? But it’s fairly obvious that the economy we are familiar with will change dramatically.

“People will have to rethink how they live and what role production plays in their daily life if some roles vanish,” says Vardi. “What if an economy can’t provide jobs for everyone that wants to work? What if more jobs require high levels of cognitive skills and not everyone can do them?”

For some scientists and critics, giving every person a guaranteed income is one way to create a level playing field and avoid societal collapse. The idea has gained traction with some conservatives and countries such as Finland, Canada and the Netherlands.

Rushkoff believes that as technology advances, a new economic system should take shape, too. “If we get to a point where robots can till the fields, we should have a economic model that shares in the tech spoils,” he says.