Robots and AI: Will They Take Your Job, Or Save It?
In 2018, the World Economic Forum dropped a bombshell report that contained a shocking prediction. Over the next four years, robots and AI would put 75 million people out of work.
That figure generated many headlines predicting an army of Terminators that would make humans obsolete. But those who kept reading the report would find a more cheerful prediction: technology would also create an additional 133 million new jobs.
All of those figures are pre-Covid estimates, and the exact nature of our post-pandemic New Normal is still revealing itself. That said, it seems that things like the shift to remote work have acted as a driving force towards automation.
So, will a robot take your job? The answer is: it’s complicated.
The technologies that could threaten your job
We’re currently in the midst of what some are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution. At the heart of this revolution is a convergence of new technologies, each with a different application:
Autonomous devices that can move physically. These range from robotic arms to free-moving units.
Artificial Intelligence (AI):
Intelligent machines that can interpret data and make novel decisions without human intervention. Today’s iteration is Narrow AI, an intelligence that focuses on a specific task, like playing chess or identifying financial fraud. The long-term goal is General AI, which will resemble human intelligence.
A primitive but powerful branch of AI, this approach uses statistical analysis to study vast sets of data. It “learns” by remembering patterns, which improves the quality of future analysis.
A technique for studying massive sets of data and discovering correlations, which can become actionable business insights. Analytics is the work of data scientists using specialist tools.
Natural Language Processing (NLP):
An AI technique that allows machines to interpret written or spoken language, and to generate responses that sound human. NLP powers technologies like chatbots and voice-activated assistants such as Alexa and Siri.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA):
Tools that can learn complex, responsive procedures, allowing for the automation of repetitive tasks. Modern RPA can handle the majority of common office procedures.
Internet of Things (IoT):
Small, single-purpose devices, such as trackers, gauges, thermometers and cameras. IoT devices can be an organization’s eyes and ears, and offer a rich source of operational data, improving the quality of data analytics.
There are also some other crucial fourth-wave technologies—5G, cloud computing, 3D printing, and virtual reality—which will have a massive impact on the way we work.
So, things are much more complicated than robots stealing human jobs. This wave of new technology will have a disruptive effect on every sector, from top to bottom. Blue-collar workers and senior management will find that they’re facing the same uncertain future.
For some workers, this unfortunately will mean redundancy. Either their position will become obsolete, or their entire industry will cease to exist. Just think of video store clerks in the age of Netflix.
However, new technology will mean retraining and learning a new way of doing things for most people. This may open many exciting doors for people, as repetitive tasks give way to more intellectually stimulating work.
And for some, technology means a whole new set of tools to help them succeed. Instead of becoming obsolete, these professionals will be more in-demand than ever.
Five industries that AI will transform
An optimistic report from Stanford says that “the impact of robots often evolves over time from replacing human workers to augmenting them.” Basically, automation can cause some short-term disruption to the job market, which means people lose their jobs. But over the longer term, automation can drive economic growth, creating more jobs than before.
From what we’ve seen so far, the impact on each industry is different. Here’s how robots have affected different sectors.
In a recent Congressional hearing, Cornell University professor Marcos Lopez de Prado warned that many finance professionals will lose their jobs, “not necessarily because they are replaced by machines, but because they are not trained to work alongside algorithms.”
Algorithms already play a huge part in the financial industry. Common tasks like fraud detection, credit scoring, and underwriting now often involve machine learning and data analytics tools. Compliance roles are also increasingly moving to an automated basis.
However, Stanford’s report notes that technology has wiped out certain types of low-skilled finance jobs, such as bank tellers and customer service reps. But overall, relevant employment figures have crept up by 0.36% as financial institutes move to higher strategists and data analysts.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown us the importance of technology in medicine. With clinics closed or restricted, doctors took to digital platforms to deliver telemedicine services to patients. IoT devices, such as wearable health trackers that monitor vital stats, can help to supplement these consultations.
Robots can also deliver healthcare directly. In Japan, autonomous robots help out in care homes by reminding patients to take their medication. These robots can also simulate a conversation, which helps mitigate loneliness and isolation.
AI can also act as an essential bridge between doctors and patients. During the pandemic, many states launched online self-diagnosis tools that allowed people to check their symptoms and effectively triage themselves. Doctors can also use these tools themselves. For example, machine learning systems can spot patterns in an x-ray that even radiographers might miss.
Automation has been killing manufacturing jobs for centuries. Robots began taking over automobile manufacturing tasks in the 1970s, which unfortunately ended many of the highest-paying blue collar jobs in the country.
But even in the 2020s, as we move towards fully-automated smart factories, we still see a need for human staff. Take the shoe brand Skechers, for example. Back in 2011, their gigantic manufacturing campus in California employed over 1,200 people. Thanks to a massive automation drive, that staff is now down to 500.
However, those who remain at the plant enjoy higher-paying, more challenging jobs. Skechers’ teams of technicians don’t require an engineering degree, just a good understanding of computers and strong problem-solving abilities. Wynright Systems, the company responsible, pointed out that automation “creates new, higher paying, critical jobs for a new generation of workers – workers who, quite frankly, wouldn’t take those repetitive jobs if they still existed.”
Lawyers are in a unique position – if they don’t adopt technology, they could breach bar association rules. ABA Model Rule 1.1 states that “a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.“ Essentially, this means that lawyers should understand and use legal tech so that they can meet their ethical obligation to provide the best possible client service. If a robot can help reduce billable hours, they must consider using robots
Most practices already use machine learning and NLP tools to reduce hours spent on tasks like eDiscovery. These tools are becoming more sophisticated, but the demands on law offices are also becoming more intense. Filings may now include output from IoT devices, and these devices can gather an extraordinary volume of data.
For lawyers, AI may soon begin to act as a co-counsel. AI tools crunch data at an astonishing rate, which many law offices use to find precedent and game out strategies. There’s also a chance that lawyers may face robots within the courtroom, as many states experiment with rise of AI judges.
Your AI partner – the future of automation
So what happens when we achieve the goal of General AI? Will that open the door to an army of robot doctors, lawyers and accountants, who make their human counterparts redundant?
A report by the hiring firm Robert Half suggests that the ultimate outcome might be a middle ground known as symbiotic computing. “Humans will increasingly use AI to augment their thinking,” says the report, “as AI increasingly learns from humans.”
For example, imagine a human-AI management team. An AI manager can do things that the human couldn’t dream of, like crunching gigabytes of data in a matter of seconds to discover the most interesting insights. Using this data, the AI could fine-tune the company strategy in real-time.
But the human manager can do things that will always be beyond AI. Only people can communicate with other people. Only humans can explain, educate, inspire, listen to feedback, and give meaningful answers to questions. And humans can innovate and create in a way that’s beyond a fundamentally logical machine.
Instead of making entities fight over one job, it makes more sense to partner up. And we’re likely to see theses partnerships at all levels, from drivers and customer service reps, to managers and consultants. Symbiotic computing might be the best of both worlds for everyone.
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