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5/23/2016
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Robots: Not The Job Stealers We Feared

Automation and digitalization are unlikely to wipe out as many jobs as once feared, but significant changes will arise, finds a new report.

Google I/O 2016: AI, VR Get Day In The Sun
Google I/O 2016: AI, VR Get Day In The Sun
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Robots will not take as many jobs away from humans as feared, but we're still likely to face serious social and political challenges driven by the economic effects of technological change.

In recent years, a number of academic researchers have raised the possibility that advances in artificial intelligence and related technology will allow many jobs to be automated, leading to widespread unemployment and social unrest. Perhaps the most widely noted report on the subject, "The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?," came from Oxford University's Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne in 2013. MIT's Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have also explored the topic in The Second Machine Age, among other works.

However, a new Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, "The Risk of Automation for Jobs in OECD Countries: A Comparative Analysis," by Melanie Arntz, Terry Gregory, and Ulrich Zierahn, finds that there will be jobs for people in the future, but still foresees difficulties, particularly for low-skilled workers.

"The main conclusion from our paper is that automation and digitalization are unlikely to destroy large numbers of jobs," the authors state in the report, released this month. "However, low qualified workers are likely to bear the brunt of the adjustment costs as the automatibility of their jobs is higher compared to highly qualified workers. Therefore, the likely challenge for the future lies in coping with rising inequality and ensuring sufficient (re-)training, especially for low qualified workers."

Automated saw.
(Image: mooreway via Pixabay)

Automated saw.

(Image: mooreway via Pixabay)

Frey and Osborne estimated that 47% of jobs in the US could potentially be automated. If that happened over a short period, unemployment would almost certainly lead to widespread social unrest and political turmoil. But Arntz, Gregory, and Zierahn estimate that only about 9% of jobs on average across OECD states are automatable.

Their estimate varies by country. In South Korea, for instance, it's 6% while in Austria it's 12%, based on differences in workplace organization, automation investments, and worker education levels. Variations aside, the authors argue, the assumption that whole jobs will be automated rather than specific job-tasks leads to an overestimation of job losses, "as occupations labelled as high-risk occupations often still contain a substantial share of tasks that are hard to automate."

In the past, computerization has tended to lead to a change in job tasks rather than a change in employment share between occupations, the authors claim. They also observe that just because something can be automated doesn't mean it necessarily will be automated.

That conclusion can be seen in the continued presence of Starbucks and other coffee houses, or in commercial air travel. We have the technology to dispense coffee from a machine or to fly planes by autopilot. But we still prefer to buy coffee from people, and we find comfort in human pilots, despite occasional crashes attributable to pilot error or pilot malfeasance.

[See 12 Ways AI Will Disrupt Your C-Suite.]

Legal and ethical obstacles will also slow the advance of automation, the authors say. Thus, self-driving cars are likely to be ready on a technical level before society is prepared to accommodate them.

While workers as a whole will not be made obsolete by automation, the authors assert that workers without much education will bear the brunt of the workplace change, which will necessitate investments in occupational training programs to help people adapt.

"This study clearly points towards the need to focus more on the potential inequalities and requirements for (re-)training arising from technological change rather than the general threat of unemployment that technological progress might or might not cause," the authors conclude.

But in the winner-takes-all technology industry, accommodating the losers doesn't come naturally.

(Cover image: 3alexd/iStockphoto)

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Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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dwilliamshere
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dwilliamshere,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/2/2016 | 5:51:39 PM
Robotic Managers
If we really wanted to save money, it seems to me we should write software to do the work of the higher paid employees -- managers, CEOs, veeps. (How hard could it be?) Then we could pay better wages to the workers on the front lines who really pull the weight. No, you cannot automate customer service. Ask anyone who has had to go through a phone tree. But why not have computer software manage my department, remind me of my deadlines, facilitate team meetings with goal setting, monitor my attendance at work, evaluate the relative efficacy of my output, collate my coworkers' and customers' ratings of me, etc.? If it's not possible, then why is there so much project-management software out there? It surely would take some the drama out of office politics and make for a more rational workplace. Honestly, I think the only reason we've succeeded in automating low-wage work is because we believe it is simple and mindless, not because it really is any less challenging than managing. But if you want to replace your minimum-wage daycare worker with a robot to watch your toddler while you're at work putting together your productivity report for the Board, well... Just saying, there are a lot of complex, sensitive jobs that fail to get compensated at the rate of their true worth. Maybe we should rather pay you to raise your kids and let a robot crunch the numbers for the annual report.
impactnow
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impactnow,
User Rank: Author
5/31/2016 | 12:23:12 PM
Re: Evolution of jobs
Broadway the reality is that we still need people in manual labor jobs we need people to cut our hair, do our nails, fix our cars, clean our homes, fix our computers, serve our food, fix our roof, inspect our bags. All of these jobs will still need to exist while they may not be high paying careers they still fulfill a need for both parties. Not every individual wants to go to college or is interested in jobs that require a degree, as a society I think we need to respect this choice. Robots will eliminate some rote jobs and already have taken some of these jobs but there are still many out there for those that want that type of job.
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
5/29/2016 | 9:24:44 PM
Re: Evolution of jobs
@ImpactNow, I appreciate your optimism. But there are plenty of people in the 20th century and into the 21st who built livelihoods off of manual labor. You take alll those jobs away and what do you leave people --- to learn how to be contractors or work in retail/hospitality? The former opens a door toward an old fashioned entrepreneurism, but the latter is a death trap.
Michelle
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Michelle,
User Rank: Ninja
5/29/2016 | 5:59:08 PM
Re: Evolution of jobs
@impactnow This is the vision I hope for in the future. I don't want to see a mass elimnation of jobs in favor of robotic automation that leaves humans without gainful employment. The workplace will change with technology. I hope it moves in a direction that works on many levels. 
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
5/28/2016 | 11:38:44 PM
Re: Wishful thinking in this report
Universal Basic Income? That may fly in a European country, but that will never fly in the USA. Not at first. There will be upheavel, maybe even revolution, at the ballot box or otherwise, and then once even the die-hard free marketers realize that the free market doesnt work for humans anymore, maybe they were come around. Maybe not even then.
impactnow
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impactnow,
User Rank: Author
5/28/2016 | 11:38:39 PM
Evolution of jobs
Types of robots will steal are largely manual and tedious jobs that are most likely a transition job not a career . As we evolve and the IOT becomes more mature we ultimately will lose redundant manual jobs that require little or no skill . It has happened before and it will continue to happen remember when we all called our broker to place a trade in the stock market , now we can do it from my cell phone in a matter of seconds . Those data entry clerks are go e replaced by smartphones, however new industries have been spawned to support our new technologies . Jobs will evolve and people need to evolve to meet new needs.
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
5/28/2016 | 2:14:32 PM
Re: Jobs become easier, not replaced
SaneIT, I have thought about the same many times. Sorting out my email is something I never seem to get around to because there is always something more important to do, or less boring. Whenever I try to do it I am too tired and a boring task doesn't help. I would love to have a little AI helper for this. -Susan
JasonM715
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JasonM715,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/27/2016 | 12:35:22 PM
Re: Wishful thinking in this report
Unfortunately, very few people will be running the post-employment world. Check out the article today (5/27/2016) posted on truthdig - Foxconn fired 60,000 workers who are directly replaced by robotic automation. The future is here for better or worse. You are correct regarding social upheaval occurring if government(s) do not take action. The action that is surfacing is granting a Universal Basic Income. To me it was counter-intuitive at first but it appears to be the path forward. I don't see any other way out of this. We are all right in the curve and 5-10 years from now will be wondering how it all changed so quickly and radically. 
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
5/27/2016 | 8:28:51 AM
Re: Jobs become easier, not replaced
"That said, I'm excited by the idea of having less busy work to do because the AI can handle that while I get on with the complicated stuff."

 

I'm going to join you in that excitement.  I have had so many instances over the years where I wish I could tell a machine to do something mundane for me and it just went off on its way taking care of things the way I told it to.  Something as simple as sorting and archiving my email would be nice since that is one of the thing I never seem to get around to because it is boring and time consuming. 

 
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
5/24/2016 | 9:29:05 PM
Re: Wishful thinking in this report
Hi Jason, who will be running this "post-employment world"? The machines? The machines owners? The technology you speak of may need to be kept at bay and only incorporated slowly into society if revolution is to be avoided. Think of it like the diamond trade. If the diamond sellers allowed the true available amount of diamonds to enter the markets, the worth of diamonds would plummet. Bad for the few, perhaps good for the rest of us. Conversely, if these "exponential technologies" you speak of flood the workplace and industry, the value of human workers would plummet --- perhaps good for the few who own those workplaces but very bad for all the rest of us.
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